Transplantation procedures are getting better all the time, but the issue was never with the method itself. Instead, it was with the availability of the organs necessary for the procedure to be successful. That is why the recent news that a baboon was able to survive with a transplanted pig heart for six months is so important.
The study involved two Anubis baboons that were able to fully function for six months with a pig heart beating inside of them. A genetic modification on the heart and a new transplant procedure were the main reason the heart lasted as long as it did. There were an additional two baboons that went a full three months without any difficulties. This brings scientists closer to the point where they can use these pig organs in human transplants.
The scientists modified the pig’s hearts in such a way that they were able to produce a human version of the CD46 proteins. This protein blocks our immune response that damages foreign cells. The scientists also made sure that the pigs do not make alpha-gal sugars. These sugars are responsible for starting attacks on organs that are transplanted from pigs into humans and primates.
The next obstacle that the scientists tackled was how to prevent the pig heart from growing too big for the baboon’s body to handle. The heart-swelling subsides soon after the procedure, but the heart itself might start growing and damage nearby organs. To stop this, the scientists gave the baboon medication that limits the hearts growth. The medication achieves this by lowering the build-up of blood platelets.
Out of the five baboons that participated in the final experiment, two lived for three months, one had to be put down soon after the procedure due to a developing blood clot, and the remaining two lived relatively healthy lives for the next six months.