Chasing Life With Dr. Sanjay Gupta | Can Pigs Provide Organs for Transplant in Humans?
This is a guest post by WWSG exclusive speaker, Dr. Sanjay Gupta.
There are more than 100,000 people on the US organ transplant waiting list, and an average of 17 die every day while waiting for an organ. Even if everyone who wanted to donate gave their organs, fewer than 1% of them meet the requirements and specifications that make their organs and tissues usable.
I recently had a chance to visit eGenesis’ research farm. The biotech company is hoping to alleviate the organ shortage gap with the help of pigs that have been genetically edited so their organs can be more compatible with humans. The pigs I visited are being used for research, including primate transplants.
Because these animals may be used for transplants, it was of the utmost importance that they stay as free of pathogens as possible. To even enter the farm, I had to shower and change into company-provided clothes — including socks and underwear. It was even more than I normally do to prepare for surgery.
Although the idea of using pigs for human organ transplants may seem foreign, it isn’t a stretch. For many years, insulin from pigs was used to treat diabetes. We’ve been using pig valves to replace human heart valves since the 1960s. In fact, pigs are a good match for humans because their organs are of similar size. We also know how to raise pigs, and they have sizeable litters, making them a source that can be quickly scaled.
There have been just two pig-to-human heart transplants in history — both in the past two years. In both cases, the patients lived about 40 days after their procedures. That may not seem long, but as eGenesis CEO Dr. Mike Curtis reminded me, the first human heart transplant recipient lived only 18 days after transplant.
There are still many questions about this technology and the ethics surrounding it, including how much we as humans should be manipulating another species’ genome and if we should be using animals in this way at all. But it is remarkable to be in a place where we can look to the future with a solution that could save so many people’s lives.