Pig hearts could be used in human transplants within three years, according to the surgeon who pioneered heart transplantation in the UK. Sir Terence English, 87, performed Britain’s first ever successful heart transplant four decades ago, and now believes ‘xenotransplantation’ (transplanting organs or tissue from one species to another) could be the next step.
English revealed that his mentee from the pathbreaking 1979 surgery will attempt to replace a human kidney with a pig’s before the end of the year.
He told: “If the result of xenotransplantation is satisfactory with porcine kidneys to humans then it is likely that hearts would be used with good effects in humans within a few years.
“If it works with a kidney, it will work with a heart. That will transform the issue.”
English believes that such treatments will reduce dependency on donors. If that works out then it would be a major breakthrough as there is a clear shortage of donors.
Xenotransplantation is seen by many within the scientific community as the future of organ transplants, with the World Health Organisation defining the procedure as ‘living cells, tissues or organs of animal origin and human body fluids, cells, tissues or organs that have with these living, xenogeneic materials, has the potential to constitute an alternative to material of human origin and bridge the shortfall in human material for transplantation’.
Professor Christopher McGregor from the University of Alabama, who was the senior registrar for English, has gone on to make two ‘knock-out’ genes that might allow pig organs to be used in humans – a method he believes could work for a kidney transplant within just a few months.
English added: “There will be animal rights people who will say it’s entirely wrong.
“But if you can save a life isn’t that maybe a bit better?”
Harvard University geneticist George Church – who is also the co-founder and adviser of US-based firm eGenesis – is another working on the adaptation of pig organs to make them suitable for human patients.
Church and his colleagues have been using the CRISPR gene editing technique in order to modify pig organs so they are less likely to be rejected.
Once these have been modified, researchers are testing the viability of such organs after transplanting them into monkeys at the Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston.
“What we’re doing is a necessary step,” said James Markmann, Massachusetts General’s Chief of Transplant Surgery and an eGenesis adviser.
“We’d be hard-pressed to put a modified organ into a human until it’s been tested in a large animal.”