Science & Technology
The Pig: A New Organ Donor
By Cody Sung
Volume 2 Issue 4
February 10, 2022
Image provided by Feedback Central
There are currently over 106,000 people waiting for an organ transplant in the United States alone with seventeen people dying every day waiting for one. Unfortunately, an organ donor shortage exists, resulting in people not getting the organs they urgently need in time. However, recently, science has found a solution to the problem that does not involve human donors. Instead, pigs are being used. On January 11, 2022, David Bennett received the first heart transplant from another organism: a genetically modified pig. How did scientists accomplish this, and what does this revolutionary breakthrough mean for the future?
Until recently, only a human’s heart could be transplanted to another human. However, over the five decades since the first human heart transplant, there have been many technological innovations that have refined organ transplanting, including hearts, that have allowed patients to live many years without organ rejection or complications. These innovations paved the way for developments in xenotransplantation, a process by which an animal organ gets transplanted into a human. This is not the first time xenotransplantation has been attempted, however. For example, in 1984, to save a baby born with a severe heart disease, they received the heart of a baboon but died three weeks later due to the body rejecting the organ. However, since then, using pig heart valves has been common for transplants, and in October 2021, surgeons in New York successfully transplanted a pig’s kidney into a human. However, the patient was brain dead without any chance of recovery.
This operation would be the first time a genetically modified pig’s heart would be transplanted into a human. The pig used was raised in a medical-grade facility to prevent them from obtaining diseases that could be spread to a human. During this time, the pig had 10 genes altered. Some were disabled to prevent rejection, and another gene was changed to stop the pig’s heart from enlarging too much after transplantation. Human genes were given to the pig as well to prevent clotting abnormalities in the new heart. After all this, the pig’s heart was ready to be put into David Bennett. He is 57 and has terminal heart disease. Doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center, the location of the operation, believed that without the transplant, he would die. He could not be given a human transplant due to a history of noncompliance with doctors and could not be given a mechanical heart because of an irregular heartbeat, meaning that an animal heart was his only option. During the seven-hour operation, he had to be given powerful anti-rejection drugs so the body would not reject the pig heart. The heart was successfully transplanted, and Mr. Bennett survived the procedure. He is alive and well at the time of writing.
This is a big development for science and medicine, and it comes with benefits. This operation proved that xenotransplantation can be done more often with animal organs, as doing so will not damage human lives and only involves genetically modifying animal organs. This breakthrough may also help with the organ donor shortage, as no humans are needed if xenotransplantation becomes more widespread. However, there are some ethical issues, such as how pigs in medical-grade facilities do not enjoy the same quality of life as pigs out in a field, and the procedures needed for a pig to be able to become a proper donor. However, as science continues to improve, we might finally solve the donor shortage by using pigs.