(AP) — Surgeons transplanted a pig’s kidney into a brain-dead man and for over a month it’s worked normally — a critical step toward an operation the New York team hopes to eventually try in living patients.
Scientists around the country are racing to learn how to use animal organs to save human lives, and bodies donated for research offer a remarkable rehearsal.
The latest experiment announced Wednesday by NYU Langone Health marks the longest a pig kidney has functioned in a person, albeit a deceased one -– and it’s not over. Researchers are set to track the kidney’s performance for a second month.
“Is this organ really going to work like a human organ? So far it’s looking like it is,” Dr Robert Montgomery, director of NYU Langone’s transplant institute, told the Associated Press.
“It looks even better than a human kidney,” Montgomery said on July 14 as he replaced a deceased man’s own kidneys with a single kidney from a genetically modified pig — and watched it immediately start producing urine.
The possibility that pig kidneys might one day help ease a dire shortage of transplantable organs persuaded the family of Maurice “Mo” Miller from upstate New York to donate his body for the experiment. He’d died suddenly at 57 with a previously undiagnosed brain cancer, ruling out routine organ donation.
“I struggled with it,” his sister, Mary Miller-Duffy, told the AP about her decision. But he liked helping others and “I think this is what my brother would want. So I offered my brother to them.”
“He’s going to be in the medical books, and he will live on forever,” she added.
Attempts at animal-to-human transplants, or xenotransplantation, have failed for decades as people’s immune systems attacked the foreign tissue. Now researchers are using pigs genetically modified so their organs better match human bodies.
Last year with special permission from regulators, University of Maryland surgeons transplanted a gene-edited pig heart into a dying man who was out of other options. He survived only two months before the organ failed for reasons that aren’t fully understood but that offer lessons for future attempts.
Next, rather than last-ditch efforts, the Food and Drug Administration is considering whether to allow some small but rigorous studies of pig heart or kidney transplants in volunteer patients.
The NYU experiment is one of a string of developments aimed at speeding the start of such clinical trials. Also Wednesday, the University of Alabama at Birmingham reported another important success — a pair of pig kidneys worked normally inside another donated body for seven days.
Kidneys don’t just make urine — they provide a wide range of jobs in the body. In the journal JAMA Surgery, UAB transplant surgeon Dr Jayme Locke reported lab tests documenting the gene-modified pig organs’ performance. She said the weeklong experiment demonstrates they can “provide life-sustaining kidney function.”
These kinds of experiments are critical to answer remaining questions “in a setting where we’re not putting someone’s life in jeopardy,” said Montgomery, the NYU kidney transplant surgeon who also received his own heart transplant — and is acutely aware of the need for a new source of organs.
More than 100,000 patients are on the nation’s transplant list and thousands die each year waiting.