It's Another Big Milestone on Organ Transplants

In test, doctors give kidneys from genetically altered pig to brain-dead patient
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 20, 2022 1:39 PM CST
It's Another Big Milestone on Organ Transplants
Surgeons prepare to transplant kidneys from a genetically modified pig to a brain-dead recipient in September 2021.   (UAB via AP)

It's the second big success story this month in regard to a potentially huge shift in the field of organ transplants. Doctors in Alabama transplanted the kidneys of a genetically altered pig to a brain-dead recipient, reports the New York Times. The surgeries took place in September, and the kidneys survived over the course of the 77-hour experiment, per New Scientist. The recipient is a 57-year-old man who had been kept alive on ventilator since a dirt-bike accident last year and whose family donated his body to the University of Alabama at Birmingham for medical research. The kidneys were altered genetically to reduce the risk of rejection, and the experiment worked.

“This game-changing moment [is] a major milestone in the field of xenotransplantation, which is arguably the best solution to the organ shortage crisis,” says surgeon Jayme Locke in a statement. "What a wonderful day it will be when I can walk into clinic and know I have a kidney for everyone waiting to see me." Xenotransplantation refers to animal-to-human transplants. The next step is to perform similar transplants in a small-scale study of living patients, and Locke hopes that can happen by the end of the year. The success—though one kidney performed better than the other, perhaps because the latter was damaged during removal from the pig—comes after surgeons in Maryland transplanted a heart from a gene-edited pig to a man earlier in January.

The breakthroughs are part of the revolution brought about by the CRSPR gene-editing method. Typically, a pig organ would be quickly rejected by a human recipient. But as New Scientist explains, researchers essentially switched off four genes in the pigs and added six human genes, the result being that the organs were accepted. The brain-dead recipient is Alabama's Jim Parsons. When his family learned that this research had "the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives, we knew without a doubt that that was something that Jim would have definitely put his seal of approval on,” says his ex-wife, Julie O’Hara, per the AP. (More organ transplants stories.)

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