There's great news for anyone waiting on an organ transplant, and pigs are at the heart of it.
Researchers at Revivicor, a regenerative medicine division of the biotech company United Therapeutics, have been producing genetically modified pigs to harvest for transplantable organs.
The research was spurred by the company's co-CEO, Martine Rothblatt, whose daughter has pulmonary arterial hypertension, a lung disease that can be fatal.
According to the MIT Technology Review, Rothblatt's goal is to aid in the first pig-to-human lung xenotransplantation, or interspecies organ transplant, and to create an unlimited supply of transplantable organs for the future. "We want to make organs come off the assembly line, a dozen per day," Rothblatt told MIT Technology Review.
The current state of the human organ donor program can make getting a new lung or kidney precarious. Intact, usable human organs available for donation are scarce, and there are about 20 times more people on the donor waiting list than there are actual donors. Plus, even if there's an acceptable organ available, some organs can't be preserved long enough to ship successfully.
The trick with putting animal organs inside people is that your immune system doesn't want to work with anything but human parts, and it's so stubborn that it will flat-out reject the organ — and kill you in the process.
To combat that, researchers have begun adding more human genes (up to eight, in fact) to their modified pigs, and even removed a cell-lining sugar molecule present in pigs that often leads to organ rejection.
Being able to keep a baboon alive on a pig heart means, biologically, the research may be a couple years away from putting one of the human-spliced pig organs into a person.
So far, the Rothblatt-funded researchers have managed to keep a pig heart alive in a baboon for two and a half years. And while that doesn't sound like much, it's five times longer than the last record, held by a hospital in Massachusetts.
There are still plenty of obstacles. Lungs are inherently tougher to work with, since they're constantly bombarded by the immune system and all the crap floating in the air. As it stands, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh say they've only kept a baboon alive with a Revivicor pig kidney for four months. That length of time is impressive, but nowhere near ready to try on a human subject. Plus, surgeons say xenotransplantation costs $100,000 and involves eight people, so the situation needs to be pretty desperate.
What's exciting here is that Rothblatt's initiatives aren't the only ones hacking organs and genes to create new body parts. CNN reported this week that researchers are currently attempting to rebuild lost limbs by stripping down the genes of monkey arms and rebuilding them with human cells, creating, in effect, a human arm, since the cells used dictate what the arm will be. The technology is already being tested on monkeys. "If it works, out you could regenerate ... on demand," Harald Ott, director of the organ repair and regeneration lab at Massachusetts General Hospital, told CNN.
This all means, in a few years, people could be full of animal parts. The donor list could be all but rendered obsolete, since no one will ever need to wait on a human part again. Doctors could replace limbs at will.
And if all else fails, this at least means we'll never run out of bacon.