The breakthrough in using animal organs for humans seems to be closer than ever. It sparked new interest after it was announced that the US kept a baboon alive with genetically engineered pigs heart for roughly three years. Since the announcement there has been plenty of speculation about the procedure.
Transplanting live organs, cells, or tissues from an animal to a human is called Xenotransplantation and research into this concept has been conducted as far back as 1900s. In the early 1900s it was studied at the same time humans were first practicing human-to-human transplants. Yes, at first both concepts ran in parallel.
With the success of human-to-human transplants the idea of animal transplants was put on the shelf. That is until 1980s after drugs such as cyclosporine made transplants between humans way more effective. These new immunosuppressant drugs lowered the body’s ability to reject a transplanted organ. The idea was now animal-to-human transplants were possible and would allow for a lot more donors on the market. The idea sparked further interest when advances in genetic engineering and cloning in the 2000s were developed, meaning that genetically engineered pigs could result without the antibody that leads to their organs being rejected
Now with this latest research done with the baboon with the pig heart we seem to be a step closer to developing this procedure as a medical practice available for the project. Although it is not as close as some might think it is. While there was a baboon that was successful in accepting his new pig heart, there was another baboon test subject who unfortunately died due to an infection. The infection, which was antibiotic resistant, took five months to kill the baboon. There were a few other test subjects, the median amount of years a baboon stayed alive with a pig’s heart was 298 days.
Now three years might seem quite reasonable to some especially with how high in demand human organs are. One thing to note though is that these baboons were not dependent on this new transplant, meaning they did not need a new heart, pig or otherwise, in the first place. In fact, the baboon hearts were not removed while the pig’s hearts were attached to the baboon’s abdomens.
Another factor worth noting is the amount of immunosuppressant drugs the baboons took would be too much for human consumption. It study suggest that a pig-to-human transplant would mean that the human recipient would need to have his immune system suppressed on a very long time, if not a lifelong, basis or the anti-pig antibody would find its way back.
Although this study suggests there is progress there of course many things to address and we are years away from another breakthrough. Hyper acute rejection specifically has to be further researched. Even after that hurdle we still do not know if these pig hearts can solely function to keep a baboon alive seeing that the test subjects did not live solely with the pigs heart so they are a ways a way from putting them in a person.
With all these obstacles the concept of Xenotransplantation should not be dismissed seeing how revolutionary it would be. You might not be able to get a pig heart transplant any time soon but it could possibly be available in our lifetime.