If you get an organ transplant from a pig, is it covered by medical or veterinary insurance? That may sound absurd, but the potential for this kind of question is real and it’s here. Barely a week after a genetically modified (to prevent rejection) pig’s heart was successfully transplanted into a living human who is still living with his beating porcine organ, doctors successfully transplanted two genetically modified pig kidneys into the donated body of a brain-dead human and they functioned normally until the experiment was terminated 77 hours later – a record set in just the second attempt at a pig-to-human kidney transplant. Let the ethical, medical, insurance and animal rights debates begin!
“Our study demonstrates that major barriers to human xenotransplantation have been surmounted, identifies where new knowledge is needed to optimize xenotransplantation outcomes in humans, and lays the foundation for the establishment of a novel preclinical human model for further study.”
Yes, this is a big deal -- according to Jayme Locke, M.D., director of the Comprehensive Transplant Institute in the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) Department of Surgery and lead surgeon for the study published in the American Journal of Transplantation. The FDA defines xenotransplantation as “any procedure that involves the transplantation, implantation or infusion into a human recipient of either (a) live cells, tissues, or organs from a nonhuman animal source, or (b) human body fluids, cells, tissues or organs that have had ex vivo contact with live nonhuman animal cells, tissues or organs.” In this case, the “clinical-grade” genetically modified pig kidneys (called UKidney™) came from the biotechnology company United Therapeutics Corporation’s subsidiary Revivicor, Inc.
The human recipient was Jim Parsons, a registered organ donor whose organs were not suitable for donation when he died at age 57, so his family agreed to allow his brain-dead body be kept functioning on a ventilator during the study.
“Jim would have wanted to save as many people as he could with his death, and if he knew he could potentially save thousands and thousands of people by doing this, he would have had no hesitation.”
Jim Parson’s family discussed his participation in a press release, which also stated that the wait for a donated kidney can be as long as 10 years in some states, and almost 5,000 people per year die waiting on a kidney transplant. This experiment showed that the modified genes in the pig kidneys prevented blood clots and other known immune reactions, and demonstrated that the pig kidney could have lasted even longer while withstanding the higher blood pressure of a human body.
While both this and the recent pig heart transplant are medically revolutionary and potentially lifesaving, that doesn’t preclude the ethical concerns. It was revealed a few days ago that the pig heart recipient was convicted in 1988 of stabbing a man seven times – the victim was paralyzed for life and died in 2007, while the organ recipient spent six years in prison. The religious concerns of creating potential hybrids or chimeras vary, while animal rights activists have long fought the idea of setting up animal organ farms. And, while we continue to suffer from and search for the cause of the COVID pandemic, the fear of viruses jumping from animals to humans via organ transplants is real – despite the meticulous preventative measures taken in this experiment.
Are we ready for pig organ transplants? If not, can we stop it? Whose decision is it -- science, the public or the profit-making hospitals and insurance companies?
Is it too late?