A patient whose deteriorating heart was transplanted with the heart of a genetically engineered pig in a remarkable operation at the University of Maryland Medical Centre in Baltimore, United States, died two months later on March 8. On January 10, the successful transplantation procedure was performed on 57-year-old David Bennett. He was suffering from severe arrhythmia. A life-threatening illness that affects the rhythm of heartbeats.
What is Xenotransplantation?
Xenotransplantation has the potential to help millions of people worldwide who need organ transplants. The process involves implanting animal organs into human bodies and could eliminate the need for organ donation and transplant rejection. However, this process is not without its risks, such as the transmission of prion diseases and increasing antibiotic resistance in pathogens. While still experimental, it’s an important procedure to understand since xenotransplantation could be the future of organ transplants.if we can figure out how to make it safe enough to use.
The different types of xenotransplantation
There are two different types of xenotransplantation: autologous and allogeneic. In autologous transplants, a patient’s cells are removed from their body and altered before being transplanted back in to help fight off diseases like cancer. In allogeneic transplants, cells or tissues from other animals are transplanted into patients. Allogeneic transplantation is more common in xenotransplantation research than autologous transplantation because it’s easier to genetically alter animal cells than human ones.
The advantages of pig-to-human xenotransplants
Pigs are structurally similar to humans. Pigs can be bred in captivity, eliminating concerns about an animal-disease epidemic spreading among wild populations. Domestic pigs have short generation times, meaning you don’t have to wait years to see whether a procedure is safe and effective. Pig organs also have an ideal size and shape that’s more easily compatible with human anatomy than larger animals like cows or horses. The organ xenotransplants we’ve seen so far—kidneys, livers, and hearts—have been fairly simple in design, but they are working well enough that some doctors believe pig-to-human transplants could be done safely within five years.
The problems with pig-to-human xenotransplantation
Pig organs carry several risks for human health, including those associated with pig viruses. And our immune systems have never been exposed to pig tissue before, meaning it could attack their tissue as foreign invaders. This creates a great risk of organ rejection, which is deadly for patients who depend on transplant organs to survive. That’s why xenotransplants are not in common use—yet. That’s also why so much research is being invested into genetic modification of pigs and humans to reduce these risks and improve success rates.
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