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Pig kidney transplantation: what it means for the future

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The dream of eliminating organ donor waiting lists is inching closer to reality with the advent of genetically engineered pig organs for human transplant. This breakthrough holds immense potential to address the critical shortage of human donor organs, a crisis that claims countless lives each year.

The current system relies on the selfless act of deceased organ donation, which inherently falls short of meeting the ever-growing demand. Thousands die annually while waiting for a lifesaving transplant. Pig organs, with their similar size and anatomy to human organs, offer a compelling alternative.

However, a major hurdle is our immune system's natural tendency to reject foreign tissue. Scientists are tackling this challenge through genetic engineering. By meticulously removing genes that trigger rejection and introducing human-compatible ones, researchers are creating pigs whose organs are less likely to be attacked by the human body.

The recent first successful pig-to-human kidney transplant marked a historic milestone. While the long-term effects are still being studied, it demonstrates the viability of this approach. With further research and refinement, pig-to-human transplants have the potential to revolutionize organ donation.

The number of lives saved could be staggering. In the United States alone, over 100,000 people currently wait for organ transplants, with an average of 22 dying each day. A steady supply of genetically modified pig organs could significantly reduce these numbers and offer hope to countless patients desperately awaiting a second chance.

Ethical considerations surrounding animal welfare and potential transmission of pig viruses remain, but ongoing research is addressing these concerns. The potential benefits for human health are undeniable. Pig-to-human transplants offer a glimmer of hope for a future free from the heartbreak of waiting in vain for a lifesaving organ

Dr. Martin Wijkstrom is an Associate Professor of Surgery and the Director of the Islet Cell Transplantation Program at University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. His expertise is in xenotransplantation, mostly in islet and kidney models using cells and organs from genetically engineered pigs.

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*This interview will be recorded on Monday, April 1, 2024.

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David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi