Science 3 min read

Cross-species Organ Transplants: Pig Kidney Into Human Patient

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yezry /

Dr. Joseph Tector at the University of Alabama at Birmingham could be conducting animal to human organ transplants by the end of 2017.

Scientists will soon conduct cross-species organ transplants, including cloned pig kidneys into human patients. It may sound like science fiction, but it may be a reality sooner than you think.

Organ transplants are a dangerous business, and the supply of potential donors has been limited since the first Kidney transplant in 1954. If you find yourself in need of organ transplants, chances are you’ll wait for years (if you even live that long). The morbid reality of organ failure is hard to face, but it inspires scientists to find new answers, however strange those answers may be.

The crux of organ transplants is that the body still has the potential to reject a congruent organ. Just as blood has a type apparently so do organs. If your body doesn’t accept the organ, it launches a host of biological processes to fight it.  As a result, first you find an organ to use and then you protect it with medications that keep your immune system from treating it like a hostile invader.

Even when you take all the right steps, the organ transplants can be rejected. This is a loss for you as well as the donor. The grisly problem facing kidney transplants has led to some odd choices in treatment, including the use of animals for organ donors.

Remembering Baby Fae

It may sound like something out of old science fiction, but scientists have been trying to make practical use of non-human tissue for decades. The first xenotransplant was performed at Loma Linda University Medical Center in 1984. A baboon heart was implanted into a young girl dubbed Baby Fae, but the heart was rejected, and the baby died just 21 days later.

The first xenotransplant was performed at Loma Linda University Medical Center in 1984.Click To Tweet

Baby Fae’s transplant didn’t work because her immune system did not recognize the heart on a cellular level. It was the right size and the right shape, but it just wasn’t made of the right stuff. Even though the transplant didn’t work, it created inroads for future scientists to carry on researching what other candidates from the animal world may help save human lives.

If Baby Fae is our example, then chimp organs are out of the running, but another animal has taken up the baton thanks to cloning techniques: the humble pig.

Organ Transplants Benefit From Cloning Technology

Pigs may sound like an unlikely source for human transplant, but it isn’t completely outside of the realm of imagination.

The human body can spot a fake implant by reading a set of proteins that serve as a ‘reject me’ sign. Scientists have found a way to remove those proteins in pig kidneys, and the result is a kidney that is indistinguishable from a human kidney. Cloning can provide the pig, so it is a renewable resource that can provide plenty to sate the demand for life-saving replacements.

organ transplants
Dr. Joseph Tector |

At the forefront of this ground-breaking research is Dr. Joseph Tector at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who could be practically implanting a pig kidney into a human being as soon as the end of 2017, according to Dr. Louis M. Profeta.

If the transplants are successful, then the science could extend to other vital organs, making the demand for such critical surgery material a thing of the past. With an unlimited supply of organs, we could be seeing a new revolution in medical technology.

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