For the last 10 years, a facility at the National Institutes of
Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, has housed baboons with pig hearts
beating in their abdomens. They’re part of an experiment that
researchers there hope will help develop pig organs safe for transplant
into people, about 22 of whom die each day in the United States alone
while waiting for human organs that are in short supply. Today, those
NIH researchers and their collaborators report record-setting survival
data for five transplanted pig hearts, one of which remained healthy in a
baboon for nearly 3 years. The results—in baboons that kept their
original hearts and were regularly given hefty doses of
immune-suppressing drugs—aren’t enough to justify testing pig organs in
humans yet. But they come as an encouraging piece of evidence for the
long-struggling field of cross-species organ transplants, known as
“People used to think that this was just some wild experiment and it
has no implications,” says Muhammad Mohiuddin, a cardiac transplant
surgeon at National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute in Bethesda, who
led the study. “I think now we’re all learning that [xenotransplantation
in humans] can actually happen.”
Pig hearts have been shown to beat normally for years in the abdomens of immune-suppressed baboons. Kevin Curtis/Science Source
So far this year, 69 people in New England who died from an overdose have donated their organs, according to the New England Organ Bank.
They account for 27 percent of all donations in the region, up sharply
from 2010, when eight donors, or 4 percent, were drug users.
doctors can use multiple organs from each person, these 69 deceased
drug users saved the lives of 202 other people, according to the organ
more than 790 deceased drug users have donated organs this year,
accounting for about 12 percent of all donations. That is more than
double the 340 drug users who donated in 2010, or about 4 percent of the
total, the organ bank said.
an unexpected silver lining to what is otherwise a pretty horrendous
situation,” said Alexandra K. Glazier, chief executive of the New
England Organ Bank, which procures organs for transplant in the six New
England states and Bermuda.
Alexandra K. Glazier, chief executive of the New England Organ Bank, with cases used to transport kidneys.
Credit: M. Scott Brauer for The New York Times