Scientists at NYU Langone in New York City have successfully transplanted a pig’s kidney into a human body for the first time, according to reports on Wednesday.
Patients in need of organ transplants have long suffered on the excruciating waitlists to receive the body parts they so desperately need to survive. Scientists have turned to animal organs, specifically pigs, as a way to hopefully alleviate the organ shortage and help people in need.
But such research is not without its own challenges. A sugar found in pig cells that is not present in the human body causes humans to immediately reject the organ, which led researchers to turn to gene-edited animals to remove the sugar and create a functioning kidney.
Researchers at Langone attached the engineered pig kidney to the body of a dead person so that they could safely monitor its functioning over the course of two days. They found that the organ worked properly and was not rejected by the body.
“It had absolutely normal function,” said Dr. Robert Montgomery, who led the project at NYU Langone Health. “It didn’t have this immediate rejection that we have worried about.”
“It was better than I think we even expected,” Montgomery said. “It just looked like any transplant I’ve ever done from a living donor. A lot of kidneys from deceased people don’t work right away, and take days or weeks to start. This worked immediately.”
Genetically engineered pigs “could potentially be a sustainable, renewable source of organs — the solar and wind of organ availability,” he added.
“There didn’t seem to be any kind of incompatibility between the pig kidney and the human that would make it not work, there wasn’t an immediate rejection of the kidney.”
Pig kidney transplant is huge step forward for medical field
Montgomery has admitted that the team is still unable to predict the long-term viability of pig kidneys, and precisely the scale of impact they will have on those in need of organ transplants. However, he maintained, “this allowed us to answer a really important question: Is there something that’s going to happen when we move this from a primate to a human that is going to be disastrous?”
Prominent figures in the medical field have stepped forward to acknowledge the significance of Langone’s work, with United Therapeutics CEO Martine Rothblatt saying “this is an important step forward in realizing the promise of xenotransplantation, which will save thousands of lives each year in the not-too-distant future.”
But not everyone sees this as a positive development. The animal rights organization PETA spoke out against the idea of using pig kidneys for humans, despite the lives it could potentially save:
“Pigs aren’t spare parts and should never be used as such just because humans are too self-centered to donate their bodies to patients desperate for organ transplants.”