Pigs in Medicine

There is a national shortage of kidney donors. There are more than 90,000 Americans waiting for a kidney transplant. In 2021, fewer than 25,000 received one, and some 41,000 were added to the national waiting list. On the average day, around a dozen people on the list die.

These statistics are reported in an article published in The Wall Street Journal by Sally Satel, a senior fellow at The American Enterprise Institute and a visiting professor of psychiatry at Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. Dr. Satel is a kidney transplant recipient. She says, “I had my first kidney transplant in 2004. It gave out after 10 years. The replacement, which I received in 2016, functions well but won’t last forever. ‘May your organ outlive you,’ older transplant patients tell each other. Otherwise, you may not survive the queue for a new one.”

This brings us to a new and exciting breakthrough in transplantation that may go a long way toward reducing the waiting time for kidney, and other organ, transplants. Xenotransplantation – the implantation of animal tissues and organs across species – have been exhilarating. In September, doctors at NYU Langone Medical Center attached a pig kidney to blood vessels in a dead woman’s leg (with permission of her family). The kidney produced urine and cleared waste products during the 54-hour observation period. The procedure was repeated in another patient two months later.

In the same month, a team of doctors at the University of Alabama – Birmingham implanted the first-ever genetically modified pig kidneys into the body of Jim Parsons, 57, of Huntsville, who had been brain-dead by a motorcycle accident. The new kidneys turned “beautiful and pink,” the lead surgeon said. The experiment lasted 77 hours.

On January 7, surgeons at the University of Maryland transplanted a heart from a genetically modified pig into David Bennett, Sr., who doctors said had exhausted all other treatment options. Mr. Bennett, 57, was still alive as of February 9, when Dr. Satel’s article was published.

This is exciting news! As noted above, the number of human kidneys and hearts available for transplantation is far less than the demand. Dialysis, an hourslong process of having your blood cleansed, extends life, though not nearly as much as a transplant. It is a several-times-a-week ordeal. More than half a million Americans have end-stage kidney disease and depend on dialysis, according to the National Institute of diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Medicare’s End State Renal Disease program spent $51 billion on dialysis in 2019, 6% of the total Medicare budget.

Dr. Satel says, “Xenotransplantation is the future. Jayme Locke, the surgeon who headed the University of Alabama team, said she hopes to be able to offer pig-kidney transplants within five years. Godspeed to Dr. Locke, her colleagues and the noble pig. Make the donor shortage – its heartbreak, its unfairness and its expense – a thing of the past.”

We can all agree with that sentiment.

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