Pigs already give us so much — bacon, carnitas, companionship, adorable smiles and tail-wags. But now we can add one more possible contribution to the list: Organ donation.
Surgeons at New York University Langone Health successfully linked a pig’s kidney to a human, and although the organ did not actually go inside the patient’s body, doctors observed that it functioned well once attached to the patient.
It’s the first time ever for this type of operation, and experts are cautiously optimistic about its ramifications for kidney patients.
“There doesn’t seem to be any kind of incompatibility between the pig kidney and the human that would make it not work,” said Robert Montgomery, director of the NYU Langone Transplant Institute, in the New York Times.
Montgomery performed the groundbreaking operation in September — his team kept watch over the kidney’s functioning for 54 hours after the attachment and were encouraged by its performance.
A key factor in the successful surgery was the pig itself. The animal was bred to eliminate genes that would cause the human body to reject the organ, according to the BBC.
The operation’s human subject was an organ donor who’d been declared brain-dead, and whose family consented to the surgery.
It’s an exciting discovery, but it’s just the first step. As other scientists noted in the Times, the surgery will have to be reproduced, and research will need to be published and reviewed, before pig transplants become the wave of the future.
There’s also the matter of ethics: Is it right to breed animals simply for their organs? (You can probably imagine what People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has to say about the operation.)
“I certainly understand the concern,” Montgomery said to the BBC. “[But] currently about 40% of patients who are waiting for a transplant die before they receive one,” Montgomery said to the BBC.
“The traditional paradigm that someone has to die for someone else to live is never going to keep up.”
The ethical questions will be heartily debated as research into pig organs continues. Until then, though, this might be a hopeful glimpse of the future for folks in need of organ donations.