Every day, 20 Americans die waiting for an organ transplant.
Scientists have long tried xenotransplantation — using organs from other species in humans — to combat a short supply of organ donors, with little success. But this method is seemingly on the verge of a massive breakthrough, and it could provide "a definitive solution to the organ crisis," a transplant researcher tells The New York Times Magazine.
The first attempt at xenotransplantation came in 1984, when doctors replaced a newborn's failing heart with a baboon's. The baby lived less than three weeks, but the story inspired a new generation of xenotransplantation researchers who are focused less on primates and more on inbred, pathogen-free pigs, per the Times Magazine.
Given primates' long breeding cycles, using them to essentially create an organ farm wasn't sustainable. But pigs ordinarily have multiple piglets in less than four months, and they're "uncannily humanlike in organ size and function," the Times Magazine notes. The main xenotransplantation complication came from humans' and pigs' divergent immune systems, which meant a human would probably reject swine tissue.
That's where Columbia University immunologist David Sachs' pathogen-free swine farm comes in. Sachs' pigs are genetically engineered so their organs grow to "about the same size as a human's," the Times Magazine writes, and Sachs says they're "very likely the most inbred large animals on Earth." Those swine, combined with what scientists call "brute-force immunotherapy," could lead to success in the first "pig-to-human skin graft" slated for later this month. If it's successful, a full kidney replacement for dialysis patients will come next. Read more at The New York Times Magazine. Kathryn Krawczyk