Optimism About Xenotransplantation Grows After a Series of Accomplishments

Pig kidneys were successfully implanted into a human and functioned normally. Surgeons hope to start clinical trials with kidney patients later this year.

Recent breakthroughs and accomplishments are transforming the landscape of xenotransplantation and creating excitement about the potential of new supplies of organs for severely ill patients. Today’s news that surgeons at the University of Alabama at Birmingham have successfully transplanted kidneys from a genetically modified pig into the abdomen of a 57-year-old brain-dead man follows the success surgeons at NYU Langone Health had months earlier when they attached a kidney from a genetically modified pig to a brain-dead individual who was being maintained on a ventilator.

“What a wonderful day it will be when I can walk into clinic and know I have a kidney for everyone waiting to see me,” Dr. Jayme Locke, the lead surgeon at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, told The New York Times. According to Locke, the procedure had closely resembled a human-to-human transplant operation. Everything went well, spurring aspirations for a small clinical trial with live patients that could begin by the end of the year.

Every day ten patients in the United States die while on the waiting list to receive lifesaving vital organ transplants, according to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). A transplant is usually the best treatment for kidney failure. Over half million Americans have end-stage kidney disease and depend on dialysis.

To successfully transplant a pig kidney into a human patient without triggering immediate rejection by the recipient’s immune system is a major accomplishment. “The biggest fear in the xenotransplant community was of hyper-acute immune rejection—that you put in the new organ and the body would immediately reject it,” Dr. Muhammad Mohiuddin, the scientific director of the cardiac xenotransplantation program at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, observed in The New York Times.  

After the success of a series of pig organ implants—including a genetically modified pig’s heart—much of that fear has likely subsided. “The heart is beating like a new heart,” Mohiuddin reported. “It’s like we put a BMW engine in a 1960s car.”

Advancing xenotransplantation through knowledge and perception assessment is a key undertaking of the Kidney Health Initiative, a public-private partnership between the ASN and the FDA. Opportunities for utilizing modified porcine kidneys as a potential source of viable organs for patients with end-stage kidney disease are considerable. KHI aims to inform first-in-human xenotransplantation trials by engaging the research and development communities, care partners, and patients to assess current knowledge and perceptions of this potentially powerful technology.

The recent success of xenotransplantation in nephrology also aligns well with ASN’s initiative, We’re United 4 Kidney Health , which is both a roadmap and rallying cry of how, together, we can build the bridge to a new world without kidney diseases. The initiative, which aims to embrace early intervention and place health over end-stage treatment, emphasizes transforming transplantation and increasing access to donor kidneys as a central priority.