Pig-to-human organ transplant research means hope for patients

ROCHESTER, Minn. — Now, a medical breakthrough may lead to a new source of critically needed organs from genetically modified pigs.

In late September, NYU Langone doctors performed the first xenotransplantation, the transplant of a non-human kidney to a human. This is critical because more than 90,000 people are waiting for kidneys across the US, according to the US Dept. of Health and Human Services.

As the need for organ transplants grows across our country, the availability of donated organs from living and deceased humans stays the same. Thousands of people in the U.S. die or become too sick for a transplant while waiting for an organ, according to HHS.

Piedmont Atlanta patient Patricia Fortner said she was devastated to learn her kidneys were failing. She would become dependent on a machine to clean her blood while waiting on a transplant. Doctors learned that she was experiencing kidney failure before a routine procedure.

“This man comes out with this horror story saying, ‘your kidneys are already gone.’ He said, ‘I don’t know how you are surviving. How did you walk in here?’” Fortner said she was immediately put on dialysis. “It was devastating because here I am with this tube in my belly.”

Fortner joined Piedmont Hospital’s kidney transplant list. She also joined a registry with the Mayo Clinic in the upper Midwest.

“I told my family, ‘I’m going to Rochester, Minnesota,’” Fortner said. “They said, ‘Are you crazy?’ I lifted my shirt [showing the tube] and said, ‘Does it look like I’m crazy?’” Fortner said.

More than 100,000 people in the U.S. are waiting for a transplant, according to the National Kidney Foundation. Thirteen people a day will die waiting for a kidney because there aren’t enough donors. Doctors say the success of the first pig to a human kidney transplant is a game-changer.

“It’s the beginning of a new chapter,” said Dr. Robert Montgomery, director of NYU Langone’s Transplant Center.

Montgomery said previously, pig organs tested for use in humans would stop working and die in minutes. In September, Montgomery and the NYU Langone team used the kidney of a genetically altered pig in a brain-dead person with the blessing of their family.

The pig was altered to remove a sugar molecule that makes humans reject organs from the animal. For 54 hours, the kidney was pink, healthy, and functioned as a human kidney. The test was only performed for 54 hours at the recommendation of medical ethicists. Montgomery said, in a couple of years, we could see pig kidney trials in living people.

“It allows individuals to come off dialysis and have a better quality of life,” said Montgomery, who is also a heart transplant recipient. “They don’t have to be on a machine three times a week. They can travel, they can spend time with family and friends do not have to worry about that burden.”

Research shows kidney transplant recipients also live longer lives that people dependent on dialysis.

It’s a burden Patricia Fortner is free from. She received her kidney after waiting only two months, giving her a second chance. The staff at Piedmont call her situation a miracle.

“Waiting times can be anywhere from two years to over 10 years,” explained Dr. Josh Wolf with the Piedmont Transplant Institute. “And during that time, the majority of those individuals are on dialysis having to be on the machine three or more days a week while waiting for a transplant.”

Dr. Wolf also explained that most people can live healthy lives if they donate a kidney. He hopes more people consider screening to be living donors while we wait for more research on using animals as donors. Patricia Fortner said the opportunity to use animals’ organs to help with critical needs is a miracle.

“I think it’s great,” Fortner said. “Whatever it takes to make another person live.”