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HomeUncategorizedScientists eyed pigs for human heart transplants, aid shortage of organ donors

Scientists eyed pigs for human heart transplants, aid shortage of organ donors

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German scientists plan to clone and then breed genetically-modified pigs this year to serve as heart donors for humans.

The rate of organ donation is low in the European country, so researchers came up with this as a possible solution to help patients in need.

Among the pigs involved in the project is the Auckland Island variety from New Zealand. It was chosen due to its small size which makes its heart more suitable for humans.

The plan is based on a simpler version of a US-engineered animal used last month in the world’s first pig-to-human transplant.

Eckhard Wolf, a scientist at Ludwig-Maximilians University (LMU) in Munich, said his team aimed to have the new species, modified from the Auckland Island breed, ready for transplant trials by 2025.

“We work in the field of xenotransplantation. Our job is to genetically modify the donor pigs so that their organs are not rejected after transplantation into humans,” said Prof. Eckchard Wolf of Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich.

In the first surgery of its kind, a team at the University of Maryland Medicine last month transplanted a heart from a pig with ten modifications into a terminally ill man. His doctors say he is responding well though risks of infection, organ rejection, or high blood pressure remain.

“Our concept is to proceed with a simpler model, namely with five genetic modifications,” said Wolf, whose work has triggered a heated debate in a country with one of Europe’s lowest organ donation rates and a strong animal rights movement.

Wolf, who has been researching animal-to human-transplants – known as xenotransplants – for the past 20 years, said his team would use still inefficient cloning technology to generate only “the founder animals,” from which future genetically identical generations would be bred.

First genetically-modified pig ready this year

The first such generation should be born this year, and their hearts would be tested in baboons before the team sought approval for a human clinical trial in two or three years’ time, Wolf said.

The first such generation should be born this year, and their hearts would be tested in baboons before the team sought approval for a human clinical trial in two or three years’ time, Wolf said.

Animals should not serve as spare parts for humans. A pet, a so-called farm animal, a clone, or a naturally-born animal all have the same needs, fears, and also rights.

– Kristina Berchtold –
Animal Welfare Association

Transplants are used for people diagnosed with organ failure who have no other treatment options, a waiting list that numbered around 8,500 people in Germany at the end of 2021, according to data from the country’s Organ Transplantation Foundation.

Wolf’s supporters say animal donors could help shorten that list, but opponents say the technology rides roughshod over the rights of animals, effectively degrading pigs to the status of organ factories while the monkeys used in transplant experiments die in agony.

In February 2019, a petition by German pressure group Doctors Against Animal Experiments demanding a ban on xenotransplantation research collected over 57,000 signatures.

Kristina Berchtold, a spokesperson for the Munich branch of Germany’s Animal Welfare Association, called the practice “ethically very questionable”.

“Animals should not serve as spare parts for humans,” she said.

“A pet, a so-called farm animal, a clone or a naturally-born animal all have the same needs, fears and also rights”.

A ‘breakthrough’ surgery

In the United States, a 57-year-old patient became the first recipient of a heart transplant from a pig in January. The procedure was done at the University of Maryland Medical System.

He first came to the hospital in October, where he was bedridden and placed on emergency life-support. He was deemed ineligible for a human transplant.

The patient died two months after the procedure, but the hospital said the transplanted heart performed well for several weeks and gave no signs of rejection.

The heart came from cloned pig instead of its offspring and had 10 genetic modifications.

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