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For 54 Hours, a Pig's Kidney Worked Normally in a Human

It's a major breakthrough, says the surgeon who performed the transplant
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 20, 2021 10:30 AM CDT
This Kidney Came From a Pig, and Worked in a Human
In this September 2021 photo provided by NYU Langone Health, a surgical team at the hospital in New York examines a pig kidney attached to the body of a deceased recipient for any signs of rejection.   (Joe Carrotta/NYU Langone Health via AP)

(Newser) – More than 100,000 Americans are on an organ transplant list, and roughly 9 out of every 10 of them are waiting for a kidney—which makes this "breakthrough" such a huge one. Surgeons at NYU Langone Health say they successfully managed to transplant a kidney that was grown in a genetically altered pig to a human in September. The organ functioned normally, though the test was short-lived: the human patient was brain-dead, and the organ, which was kept outside her body, was monitored for just 54 hours. Dr. Robert Montgomery, who headed up the transplant, says that upon being attached to the patient's blood vessels, the kidney started doing its job, producing urine and creatinine "almost immediately."

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And that was particularly good because, as Montgomery notes, "A lot of kidneys from deceased people don’t work right away, and take days or weeks to start. This worked immediately." The AP explains the reason for the genetic modification: pig cells contain a sugar that triggers immediate organ rejection; the kidney used in this case was sourced from a pig whose genetics were altered to rid it of that sugar, called alpha-gal. CNN reports the pig is known as GalSafe and was genetically engineered by Revivicor. It received FDA approval in December as a "potential source of human therapeutics," though Reuters reports additional FDA approval would be required before the kidneys could be used in humans.

The New York Times reports the reactions to the news swing both ways, with some surgeons saying such transplants are a long way off and others predicting genetically engineered pigs’ kidneys could be ready for human use in months. The Times points out there are still animal-welfare questions to be discussed when it comes to the idea of raising pigs for their organs, though it notes 100 million pigs are slaughtered for their meat in the US each year, a fact that the AP adds make them a less thorny potential donor than monkeys or apes. The research has yet to be peer-reviewed, and it has not been published in a medical journal.

(Read more discoveries stories.)

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