Pig Hearts Beating in Human Chests – A Scientist’s Hope

Organ transplant might, one day, evolve to cross-species transfer whereby humans can survive with hearts of pigs beating inside their chests, according to a new research published in the journal Nature Communications.

Human heart

Baboons have been shown to live for 2.5 years with transplanted pig hearts, say researchers from the US and Germany. Baboons being considered the primate cousins of humans, this study is thought to bring hope to patients of heart diseases. Five baboons have survived with the hearts of pigs for 945 days, thereby becoming a record-breaking feat.

It is to be noted that the monkeys did not literally have the pig hearts inside of them – rather, the hearts were linked to their circulatory system with two big blood vessels situated in their abdomens. The baboons, therefore, survived with two hearts: their own would pump blood, while the transplanted heart would beat like a normal one.

Organ transplant is known to be a tricky process, even in the same species. Cross-species organ transplantation (xenotransplant) is another thing altogether. However, the scientists claim to have been able to do so via gene modification and immune-suppressing drugs. Study co-author Muhammad Mohiuddin from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute in Maryland describes the work as a step forward to transplanting these organs into humans; he says that xenotransplant might save thousands of lives.

The pigs had been genetically engineered to develop enhanced tolerance to immune response — they were thus made undetectable to the monkey’s defense system. Blood clotting was prevented by inserting a human genetic signature in the pigs. Thereafter, the monkeys were administered with an immune-response-suppressing drug.

This method is considered to be safe for humans. The hearts of pigs bear close resemblance to ours anatomically. Furthermore, the risk of diseases is smaller than when dealing with donors like monkeys. And, pig hearts are already farmed on a large scale.

Mohiuddin says that the next step will be to perform full heart transplants from pigs to baboons. He is positive that the procedure might ultimately become feasible for humans.

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