Researchers keep pig hearts alive in baboons for more than 2 years

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

Plum Tree Germination

The first of the polyembryonic plum seeds has emerged from the site of transplant!

Growing this little fella meant saving the pit from a fruit I ate last Summer, leaving it to sit in cool damp soil all Winter, and digging it out to transplant in the garden this Spring so it can grow a vigorous root system.

It takes a few months to start a plum tree, and a few years before it fruits: raising trees this way means you’re in it for the long haul, through good fruit and bad!

As Drug Deaths Soar, a Silver Lining for Transplant Patients

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.

Because doctors can use multiple organs from each person, these 69 deceased drug users saved the lives of 202 other people, according to the organ bank.

Nationwide, 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.

“It’s 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