Sixteen pigs donated their kidneys and were transplanted into eight humans, according to researchers who say the breakthrough will save 10,000 lives
German researchers today announced the first successful human kidney transplant that was carried out on a donor who was simply a “loser pig”.
A retired nursing home nurse died aged 63 after losing her kidney at an ill-judged stage in her life. She was declared to be an organ donor, and a team from the clinic Regensburg in Bavaria found the healthy organs of 16 pigs could instead save her life.
With the pig-human kidney transplant successfully carried out for the first time on a woman, the team expect that it could help save 10,000 lives.
According to the researchers, up to 80% of those given a pig kidney need a second one, but up to 30% don’t survive for more than a year. The donation process involves the animal being stung repeatedly by bamboo rods while being brought to the clinic, where donors are injected with hormone treatments to encourage a bone marrow response. The fatty tissue from the pig’s kidneys is then removed and transplanted into the recipient.
Despite the dubious origins of the organ, Dr Thomas Straubel, a professor of organ transplantation at the Regensburg Clinic, said it had three big benefits over the recipient. “We can give a great deal more blood volume to the recipient, [the pig’s] immune system is also a very good match to the donor’s, and as it has been pig-tested before, the function of the pig is great,” he said.
The transplants took place this August after the older woman, who was clinically dead from a degenerative condition, agreed to be the first recipient.
Stefan Dörre, a senior associate at the Regensburg Clinic, said the procedure had to go through a series of tests before being deployed in a human transplant. “Without these, we would have hesitated for about a year and lost a lot of patients. The animal had to be examined by a clinic in the USA, Hong Kong and even the patient and blood sample taken from her biopsy and then these carefully run before the next procedures and blood tests in Germany,” he said.
Dörre said the team had worked on the organ for eight years and had tried 3,600 alternative organs before making the successful match with the donor.
The team is planning to expand their kidney transplant team and expand the experimental use of pig organs. “A lot depends on if we can open the pig-human transplant [pipeline] in the United States so the product can come here and save more lives,” he said.
Currently, a kidney harvested from a living donor is transported back to the US for testing on other animals, and then transferred back to Germany. However, Peter Wegner, an organ transplant expert at the University Hospital of Bayreuth, said the procedure should not be considered a “one-off solution”.
“The material itself will not be in short supply. Many animals will do an extraordinary job for you. They will save you many other lives in the future,” he said.
But Martin Koch, associate dean for transplantation at the Robert Koch Institute, said improving transplant survival rates would require resources being redirected to developing organs from the remaining organ donor population in the UK.
Koch said: “A greater emphasis on identifying and characterising suitable donors could be encouraged, as well as the development of new donor-recipient technologies and care, by funding greater progress in the UK, EU and globally.”
Falling kidney transplants rates have been blamed on the number of persons wanting to donate organs themselves falling below the supply. A donor-recipient coalition called for the government to spend £80m a year on education programmes, and introduce special donor and recipient bursaries.