American scientists have succeeded in making a genetically modified pig kidney work on humans, an achievement that represents the hope of many people waiting to undergo transplants.
If subsequent experiments confirm this success, pig farming may one day become a way to provide organs for the person who needs them, such as kidneys, lungs, heart, and others.
The operation was carried out on September 25 at Langone University Hospital in New York, using a pig kidney that had been genetically modified so that the human body would not shed the kidney.
The kidney was not implanted inside the human body in the strict sense of the word, but was attached to the blood vessels of a brain-dead patient, whose family had authorized the experiment, at the level of his upper leg. The process took about two hours.
Robert Montgomery, director of the NYU Langone Transplant Institute, told “AFP” that the kidney “worked well” during the two-and-a-half days of the experiment. He explained that she “played the role that she was supposed to play… as she produced urine.”
An attempt has been made for such a transplant – for a pig’s kidney that then worked for a whole year – but no human subjects have ever been included in the experiment.
This is due to good reason, which is that the human body contains antibodies that attack a type of sugar that is naturally present “on all pig cells”, which leads to “instant uttering” of the organ, as Robert Montgomery explained.
But this time, the animal was genetically modified so that it would not produce this sugar, and there was no “quick word for kidney”.
There are currently about 107,000 Americans on the waiting list for organ transplants, including 90,000 kidney transplants. Every day, 17 people in the United States who need transplants die.
“I think people, especially those who are waiting (…), will see this as a potential miracle,” said Montgomery, who also underwent a heart transplant three years ago.
But why was it chosen to take a kidney from a pig rather than from another animal?
“Pigs are the right size,” Montgomery explained. “They grow quickly, and they have a lot of young ones.” It is also more acceptable as it is used in food.
Pig heart valves are already widely used in humans, and their skins can be used in transplants to treat severe burns.
After 54 hours, the kidney was still working perfectly and the patient’s body had not excreted it, but his ventilator was turned off, ending the trial.
The professor admitted that these results were “limited”, especially due to the short time of the experiment.
“What would have happened after three weeks, three months and three years remains a question,” he said. But he considered it “nevertheless, it constitutes a very important intermediate step, which at first glance shows that things can go well, at least in the beginning.”
He considered that larger clinical trials could begin within “a year or two”.
Some experts treated the experiment with caution, as the detailed results of the study were not published in a scientific journal (and this is expected to happen next month).
“Nevertheless, it is an interesting step towards using genetically modified pigs as a source of organ transplants,” said Alan Archibald, a geneticist at the University of Edinburgh.
Transplanting animal organs into humans is not new. Doctors have attempted such transplants since at least the 17th century, and the first experiments focused on primates.
In 1984, a monkey’s heart was transplanted into the body of a baby girl, but the little girl, called “Baby Faye”, only survived 20 days.
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