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We Are Getting Closer To Animal Organ Transplants

New York research scientists transplanted organs of pigs into two brain-dead test subjects who had donated their bodies to science. The experiments are the latest in a long-line of attempts to save human lives with living animal organs.

The NYU researchers said they continue to learn more and more about the process with each new attempt.

“We learned so much from the first one that the second one is much better,” said Dr. Nader Moazami, who led the operations at NYU Langone Health. “You stand there in awe” when the pig heart starts to beat in a human body, he said.

To further ensure accuracy to the normal process of a heart transplant, the research team physically travelled to a pig processing plant, removed the hearts on site, and then put them on ice. After a thorough check for animal viruses, the team flew the hearts back to New York City and sewed them into the chests of the two deceased participants. One recipient was a Vietnam veteran from Pennsylvania with a long history of heart disease; the other was a New York woman who’d benefited from a transplant earlier in life.

After the transplants came days of rigorous testing — more than a living human body could withstand. The doctors performed multiple biopsies of the new organ, attempting to learn as much as possible from the procedure. They then disconnected the life support machines.

Currently, living humans seeking transplant organs cannot participate in such studies. NYU is one of three research centers working with the FDA to determine the future of the technology, and how living humans can ethically be introduced to the process.

Earlier this year, a dying man in Maryland lived for two months with a genetically modified pig heart before an animal virus disrupted the experiment

Dr. David Klassen of the United Network for Organ Sharing said longer trials of experiments with deceased test subjects is important to furthering the technology.

“They serve as an important sort of stepping stone,” said Klassen, who wonders if researchers next might consider tracking the organs for a week or so in a donated body rather than just three days.

Lawrence Kelly, the PA man who suffered heart disease for most of his life and participated in the recent study, “would be so happy to know how much his contribution to this research will help people like him” in the future, his longtime partner Alice Michael said this week.

The primary problem with animal organs is that the human immune system immediately attacks the foreign tissue. To combat the issue, specialty pig plants are genetically modifying the animals to mimic human organs (hearts and kidneys, mostly) more closely. More than 100,000 people currently need a transplant, most of them kidney patients; thousands die every year before an organ becomes available.

“This is not a one-and-done situation. This is going to be years of learning what’s important and what’s not important for this to work,” said NYU Langone’s Dr. Robert Montgomery, a kidney transplant surgeon. Montgomery has received his own heart transplant, and he has a list of almost 50 people who’ve called desperate to volunteer for a pig kidney transplant.

The issue with pig kidneys is that they might not function exactly the same as human kidneys, especially in terms of processing foreign substances like medications.

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