Scientists celebrate as pig kidney continues to function in human body

Surgeons hope that cross-species organ transplants could eventually help save lives of human patients.

A surgeon prepares a pig kidney for transplant
Dr Robert Montgomery, director of NYU Langone’s transplant institute, prepares a pig kidney for transplant into a brain-dead man in New York on July 14 [Shelby Lum/AP Photo]

Surgeons in the United States have announced that a pig kidney they transplanted into the body of a brain-dead human patient has functioned normally for more than a month, a promising sign in the effort to address widespread organ donation needs.

Surgeons at the New York University Langone Transplant Institute said on Wednesday that the milestone is the longest a pig kidney had functioned in a person, albeit a deceased one.

“We have a genetically edited pig kidney surviving for over a month in a human,” institute director Robert Montgomery told reporters.

He said the results provide “further assurances” for any future studies in living patients. The pig kidney had been genetically modified to omit a gene that produces biomolecules that human immune systems attack and reject.

“We’ve now gathered more evidence to show that, at least in kidneys, just eliminating the gene that triggers a hyperacute rejection may be enough — along with clinically approved immunosuppressive drugs — to successfully manage the transplant in a human for optimal performance, potentially in the long-term,” Montgomery said.

Scientists hope that cross-species transplants could help deliver assistance to the many people who are waiting for potentially life-saving organs.

More than 103,000 people in the US currently need organ transplants, 88,000 of whom require kidneys. Thousands of people die each year while waiting.

Wednesday’s breakthrough began with the transfer of a pig kidney into the body of Maurice “Mo” Miller, a man who had died suddenly at the age of 57 and whose body was donated to science by his family.

Researchers say that they will continue to monitor the experiment as it enters its second month.

Scientists hope to eventually progress far enough to use animal organs to save living humans, and cadavers donated for scientific research play an important role in research and experimentation.

“I struggled with it,” the sister of the deceased man, Mary Miller-Duffy, told The Associated Press about her decision to participate in the experiment. “I think this is what my brother would want. So I offered my brother to them.”

“He’s going to be in the medical books, and he will live on forever,” she said.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is mulling whether to allow small, selective studies of pig hearts and kidneys transferred into volunteer patients.

Successes like the NYU experiment could help move such efforts forward. On Wednesday, the University of Alabama at Birmingham also reported that a pair of pig kidneys had functioned without issue in another donated body for seven days.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies