And This Little Piggy Donated a Kidney

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In the sad reality we currently live in, many people need an organ transplant, but very few are available. Thanks to modern technology and medicine, doctors and surgeons can perform organ transplants every now and then. However, there’s a lot of demand for organs but not enough supply. Unfortunately, this leads to many people passing away for not getting the organ they need at the right time. But wouldn’t it be better if we could use animal organs instead? Would it even be possible?

About a month ago, doctors at New York University successfully completed an organ transplant, using a kidney from a pig onto a human body. And surprisingly, it worked! This was marked as history’s first-ever pig-to-human kidney transplant. The human recipient was brain-dead, but the family agreed to the operation and experiment. Minutes after the transplant, the kidney worked just like a human kidney would filter waste and produce urine. However, this experiment was only temporary as more research and study are needed to further better this animal-to-human organ transplant.

But why a pig? Well, the pig from which they had taken the kidney was no ordinary pig. The animal came from a herd of genetically modified pigs to remove a particular gene that makes a marker on the animal tissue that triggers a rejection by the human body. These pigs were explicitly engineered to eliminate that gene. In addition, it just so happens that pig organs are the same size as that of humans, so it is easier to handle.

But this isn’t the first time people have tried doing animal-to-human transplants (or the more scientific term xenotransplants). Back in the 17th-century, people in the medical field were trying to use animal blood for transfusions. Around the 20th century, many surgeons began experimenting with transplanting baboon organs into humans. The most famous case of this was Baby Fae, an infant born in 1984 with a heart condition. She was the first subject of a xenotransplant and the first successful infant heart transplant. The animal heart was a baboon and lived about 21 days after the surgery but inevitably passed away.

Now, we are experimenting with pigs over monkeys, given that pigs are raised everywhere and raise fewer ethical concerns. Many biotech companies are currently developing pig organs that are suitable for human transplants. But does this mean that altered pig genes are unsafe for eating? According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), gene-altered pigs are safe for human food and medicine. However, FDA also mentioned that these biotech developers would also need to submit specific paperwork regarding the organ before performing the transplant.

What do you think of this significant xenotransplant discovery? Is it ethical to use animal organs for our own health? What are some other paths the medicine field could take?

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