Science & Environment

Pig heart kept beating in baboon for over two years

Human heart Image copyright K H FUNG/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
Image caption The researchers hope that similar techniques could eventually be used in humans

Scientists say they have kept a pig heart alive in a baboon for more than two years.

The result could boost hopes for the successful transplantation of animal organs into people, amid a shortage of human donors.

Cross-species transplants provoke a powerful immune reaction, leading to rejection of the organ by the host.

But a US-German team used a combination of gene modification and immune-suppressing drugs.

Their work is described in the journal Nature Communications.

"It is very significant because it brings us one step closer to using these organs in humans," co-author Muhammad Mohiuddin, from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute in Maryland, told the AFP news agency.

"Xenotransplants - organ transplants between different species - could potentially save thousands of lives each year that are lost due to a shortage of human organs for transplantation."

Dr Mohiuddin and colleagues used a previously established line of donor pigs with three genetic modifications that allowed for a degree of immune tolerance in recipient baboons.

A combination of antibodies and drugs were then used to help prevent rejection of pig hearts transplanted into five baboons.

Record time

The hearts did not replace those of the monkeys, but were connected to the circulatory system via two large blood vessels in the baboon abdomen.

The transplanted heart beat like a normal heart, but the baboon's own heart continued the function of pumping blood - a known method in studying organ rejection.

The median (or "middle") survival time was 298 days, while the maximum survival was 945 days - just over two-and-a-half years.

This exceeded previous records by the same group of researchers of 180 and 500 days, respectively.

Given their genetic proximity to humans, primates were initially thought to be the best donor candidates. But there is no large source of captive-bred apes - which take long to grow and mature, and some, like chimpanzees, are endangered.

Their genetic closeness also poses a higher danger of inter-species disease transmission, as well as ethical questions.

Pigs have since emerged as better donors. Their hearts are anatomically similar to ours, they pose a lower risk in terms of disease transmission and they mature fast.

The next big test will be full pig-to-baboon heart transplants, said Dr Mohiuddin.

Discussing the treatment programme to prevent rejection of the hearts in baboons, the authors of the paper wrote: "In our opinion, this regimen appears potentially safe for human application for patients suffering from end-stage organ failure who might be candidates for initial trials of xenotransplantation."

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