Magazine article The Futurist

Pigs May End Organ Shortage

Magazine article The Futurist

Pigs May End Organ Shortage

Article excerpt

New research may allow pig-human transplants.

The plight of patients with failing organs is grim. There are roughly 63,000 such patients in the United States, but only about 20,000 organs each year are available for transplant. Patients must wait a year or more, and many die before they reach the top of the list.

In the far future, replacement organs may be grown from a person's own cells, but in the near future, organ transplants from animal donors to humans, a process knows as xenotransplantation, will be the best bet, say David K.C. Cooper and Robert P. Lanza, authors of Xeno: The Promise of Transplanting Animal Organs into Humans. Cooper is an immunologist at the Transplantation Biology Research Center in Massachusetts, and Lanza researches tissue engineering and transplants at Advanced Cell Technology, Inc.

Although experimenters have transplanted organs from apes (such as the baboon) to humans, pigs are more-promising organ donors, say the authors. Most apes are too small for their organs to function well in a human body, and apes may harbor viral infections, such as HIV, which is believed to have spread from monkeys to humans. In addition, most apes are endangered, so rearing and killing large numbers of them would be socially unacceptable.

On the other hand, pigs breed fast, they are the right size, and their anatomy and physiology are "surprisingly similar" to humans, the authors say. In addition, the risk of viral contamination from pigs is less than from apes, in part because there has already been considerable contact between pigs and humans.

However, there are still many obstacles to overcome before pig organs can be successfully used in humans. Rejection of an organ by the recipient's immune system is the chief problem with any transplant, even from human to human, and this difficulty is especially tough for pig-human transplants. Pigs have a particular molecule on the internal lining of their blood vessels that is also found on the surfaces of certain bacteria, viruses, and parasites. The human immune system recognizes this molecule, a form of galactose (Gal), and will destroy pig tissue as if it were an infectious organism.

One way around this problem is to genetically engineer pigs that don't produce Gal. …

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