US Surgeons achieved a milestone in the medical field by successfully transplanting a pig kidney to a human for the very first time, through a procedure that involved the use of genetically altered pig, so that the recipient’s body does not recognize the organ as ‘foreign’, ending up with immediate rejection from the immune system.
During the two-hour operation at the New York University Langone Health Medical Care, the surgeons connected the donor pig kidney to the blood vessels of the brain-dead recipient to see if it would function normally once plumbed in, or be rejected.
The kidney, attached to blood vessels in the upper leg outside the abdomen, started functioning normally, making urine and the waste product creatinine “almost immediately,” according to Dr. Robert Montgomery, the director of the NYU Langone Transplant Institute, who performed the procedure in September.
Over the next two-and-a-half days they closely monitored the kidney, running numerous checks and tests.
US surgeons hope that this successful kidney transplant breakthrough could ultimately solve donor organ shortages.
Although many questions are still required to be answered about the long-term consequences of the transplant, the recipient was already brain-dead, meaning they were already on artificial life support with no prospect of recovering.
“We need to know more about the longevity of the organ,” said Dr. Dorry Segev, professor of transplant surgery at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine who was not involved in the research. Nevertheless, he said: “This is a huge breakthrough. It’s a big, big deal.”
Xenotransplantation, the process of grafting or transplanting organs or tissues between different species, has a long history. Efforts to use the blood and skin of animals in humans go back hundreds of years.
In the 1960s, chimpanzee kidneys were transplanted into a small number of human patients, though most died shortly afterward.
Pigs offered advantages over primates for organ transplantation — they are easier to raise, reach maturation faster, and achieve adult human size in just about six months. Pig heart valves are routinely transplanted into humans, and some patients with diabetes have received pig pancreas cells as well. Pigskin has also been used as temporary grafts for burn patients.
The combination of two new technologies — gene editing and cloning — has yielded genetically altered pig organs. Pig hearts and kidneys have been transplanted successfully into monkeys and baboons, but safety concerns precluded their use in humans.