ITV News Correspondent Robert Moore reports on the potentially major advance that could help alleviate a dire shortage of human organs for transplant
The long-held belief that animal organs could one day keep people alive has come closer to reality .
A team of US surgeons has succeeded in attaching a pig’s kidney to the blood vessels of a human in a world-first.
The feat has been hailed as a significant medical breakthrough after it was confirmed over two days that the organ was functioning well in its human host.
The procedure, carried out at the New York University Langone Health medical centre, used a pig whose genes had been altered so that its tissues no longer contained a molecule known to trigger almost immediate rejection.
The pig’s kidney was then attached to the body of a brain-dead woman on a ventilator, with the consent of her family.
It kept her alive throughout the two-day study without a significant reaction.
Transplant surgeon Dr Robert Montgomery, who led the study, told ITV News his team was acutely aware of the huge implications this test had.
“We did have a good sense for where this stood historically and that it was a gateway to a new era where we wouldn’t be limited by the number of available organs and have people dying waiting for a lifesaving organ”, he said.
“So, it did feel heavy, it was really important that this worked well and that it was a successful study”, he added.
In the UK, 3,500 people are on the kidney transplant waiting list.
In the US, the waiting list stretches to more than 90,000, and 12 die every day.
Now, there is a tantalising possibility that unlimited numbers of organs could be harvested from pigs - potentially putting an end to the long, frustrating wait for human donor availability.
For Dr Montgomery, the excitement of this possibility is deeply personal.
“I’ve had a heart transplant myself and I know what it’s like to be lying in an ICU bed, dying, and wondering whether an organ is going to be available”, he explained.
However, some have said there may be ethical considerations to factor in, such as whether it would be appropriate to raise pigs to harvest their organs.
But the researchers say the necessity for organs to transplant into humans outweighs the ethical questions.
“I mean we’re not talking about testing cosmetics here, we’re talking about saving people’s lives”, Dr Montgomery said.
“If we had all the human organs that we needed we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation - but we don’t”, he added.
There is more research to be carried out and questions answered, scientists hope this is just the start of what might become a solution to donor organ shortages.