Surgeons transplant world’s first genetically edited pig kidney into living human

Written by on March 21, 2024

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(BOSTON) — A surgical team said Thursday it has conducted the world’s first genetically edited pig kidney transplant into a living human.

During a four-hour procedure earlier this month, surgeons at Massachusetts General Hospital connected the pig kidney’s blood vessels and ureter — the duct that carries urine from the kidney to the bladder — with those of 62-year-old Richard Slayman, a man living with end-stage kidney disease. He continues to recover well, the hospital says.

Massachusetts General said the procedure marks a “major milestone” in the pursuit of having organs more readily available for patients in need.

“The success of this transplant is the culmination of efforts by thousands of scientists and physicians over several decades,” Dr Tatsuo Kawai, a member of the surgical team, said in a release. “We are privileged to have played a significant role in this milestone. Our hope is that this transplant approach will offer a lifeline to millions of patients worldwide who are suffering from kidney failure.”

The patient, a resident of Weymouth — 16 miles southeast of Boston — has been living with Type 2 diabetes and hypertension for many years, the hospital said. He was on dialysis for many years before receiving a kidney transplant from a human deceased donor in December 2018 at Massachusetts General Hospital.

However, the kidney began to fail about five years later and Slayman was forced to resume dialysis in May 2023, which the hospital said affecting his quality of life.

“I saw [the procedure] not only as a way to help me, but a way to provide hope for the thousands of people who need a transplant to survive,” Slayman said in a statement.

During a press conference on Thursday morning, staff at Massachusetts General praised Slayman’s bravery and declared him a “hero”.

“This surgery, once deemed unimaginable, would not have been possible without his courage and his willingness to embark on a journey into uncharted medical territory,” Dr. Joren Madsen, director of the Mass General Transplant Center. said during the press conference.

The kidney was provided by eGenesis, a pharmaceutical company based in Cambridge, from a pig donor genetically-edited using CRISPR-Cas9 technology. The harmful pig genes were removed and certain human genes were added to improve its compatibility with humans and hopefully reduce rejection, according to the hospital.

Additionally, scientists inactivated retroviruses that are found in pigs to reduce the risk of infection in humans.

This is not the first time that an animal organ has been transplanted into a human patient.

Last year, researchers at NYU Langone Health in New York City conducted a two-month study of a genetically engineered pig kidney that had been transplanted into a 58-year-old man who had been declared brain dead, with his family’s consent. The team observed only mild rejection that required intensifying immunosuppression medication to reverse it.

Experts have expressed hope that being able to transfer animal organs into human patients will help the future of the organ supply.

However, the edited animal organs bring up questions if they will work long term, if they are safe and if it is ethical raising animals for human organ transplantation.

Currently, more than 103,000 men, women and children on the national transplant waiting list, according to the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Someone is added to the transplant waiting list every eight minutes and 17 people die each day waiting for an organ transplant. Additionally, a September 2022 study published in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology in October 2020 found many donor kidneys in the U.S. are unnecessarily discarded.

If these type of transplants for kidneys prove to work and be safe — this could one day make dialysis unnecessary for the more than 500,000 people in the U.S. who require it to live.

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