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 xenotransplantation.
“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