Doctors Perform Pig-Human Kidney Transplant

Surgeons perform the world’s first genetically modified pig kidney transplant into a living human at Massachusetts General Hospital | Image by Massachusetts General Hospital

The first-ever pig-to-human kidney transplant was conducted this month in Massachusetts.

A 62-year-old man who had been a patient of Massachusetts General Hospital’s (MGH) transplant program for 11 years became the first person ever to successfully receive a kidney from a pig.

“I saw it not only as a way to help me, but a way to provide hope for the thousands of people who need a transplant to survive,” patient Rick Slayman said in a prepared statement, per CNN.

Slayman was diagnosed with end-stage kidney failure last year after a kidney that he had received from a human donor in 2018 began to fail. Doctors hope that with the new kidney, he will be able to stop dialysis, which has been complicated by his having vascular disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure.

The four-hour surgery on March 16 involved a team of 15, including Dr. Tatsuo Kawai, the director of MGH’s Legorreta Center for Clinical Transplant Tolerance.

“It was truly the most beautiful kidney I have ever seen,” Kawai said, according to CNN.

Despite the notion of pig-to-human kidney transplants first emerging in the 1960s due to the similar size and structure of the organs, figuring out a way for it to work has been an uphill climb.

“The human immune system reacts incredibly violently to a pig organ, much more so than to a human organ,” explained Dr. Joren Madsen, director of MGH’s Transplant Center, per CNN.

This means that even with the standard regimen of anti-rejection drugs, a person’s body could reject a pig kidney in mere minutes. For this reason, the organ introduced to Slayman’s body first had to be genetically modified.

More specifically, a biotech company named eGenesis Bio carried out 69 different edits using CRISPR-Cas9 technology. Most of the edits aimed at knocking out the genetic markers that would identify the tissue as porcine and not human. Others strove to boost Slayman’s safety, such as the deactivation of porcine retroviruses, which could pose a health threat if he were infected.

“We are humbled by the courage and generosity of this patient, who is a true pioneer, enabling this major breakthrough in science and transplant medicine,” said Dr. Michael Curtis, CEO of eGenesis, in a news release.

The growing trend of animal-to-human transplantations — referred to as xenotransplants — is seen by many as a solution to the shortage of organs available for those who need them. The average wait time for a person on the national organ transplant list is 3-5 years, according to the National Kidney Foundation. Around 17 Americans die daily while waiting for an organ.

Before Slayman, porcine organs had been transplanted to humans twice. Both patients received hearts under special rules allowing the compassionate use of experimental therapies, and both died weeks after the procedure.

As previously covered by The Dallas Express, artificial organs are also being tested, such as the life-saving procedure undertaken at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas last November. Diana Bowen, a 51-year-old schoolteacher from Louisiana, was kept alive for months by an artificial heart while she waited for an organ transplant.

She had arrived at the facility in heart failure, a condition driven by heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the United States.

Rising obesity rates across the world have caused alarm among public health officials due to this chronic condition considerably increasing a person’s risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, certain types of cancer, and more, as extensively covered in The Dallas Express. Notably, being clinically obese can also bar individuals from life-saving care, with transplant centers often refusing to perform surgeries on obese patients.

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