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Recent advancements in research show that cross-species organ transplantation could soon become widespread, serving as a solution to the global shortage of organs for transplantation.
Last month, a U.S. research team announced in Nature, a leading multidisciplinary science journal, that a monkey transplanted with a pig kidney survived for over two years, the longest survival period in cross-species organ transplantation experiments to date. The previous record was about 200 days.
In September, different research showed the results of an experiment to transplant pig kidneys into brain-dead patients, which confirmed that the pig kidney functioned normally in the human body for 32 days.
The recent developments in cross-species organ transplantation research are raising expectations that cross-species organ transplantation will become more common as the constraints of replacing damaged human organs with new ones are eliminated.
Cross-species organ transplantation involves transplanting organs, tissues, or cells obtained from animals to humans for therapeutic purposes. The demand for organ transplantation has increased as the number of conditions necessitating organ transplantation increases, and organ transplantation procedures keep improving.
But the supply has not kept up with the demand.
According to the National Institute of Organ, Tissue and Blood Management, the number of organ transplant candidates totaled 42,276 as of September 2023, but there were only 378 brain-dead donors as of the same month.
In the previous year, the number of donors hit a record low, and an analysis suggests that about 6.8 people die each day while waiting for a transplant.
Cross-species transplantation technology has advanced to address the shortage of transplant organs, as it is easier to obtain the necessary organs from animals and it is also possible to receive organs in optimal condition.
Pigs are commonly used in cross-species transplantation, primarily using organs from miniature pigs weighing 60 to 80 kilograms. Their organs are also similar in size to humans, and they reproduce en masse with more ease compared to non-human primates.
Transplanting pig organs such as the pancreas or cornea has already reached practical stages, with procedures like cross-species pancreatic transplantation from pigs to treat diabetic patients already performed.
The challenge now is to transplant vital organs including the heart, lungs, and liver.
A joint research team composed of U.S. biotech venture eGenesis and Harvard Medical School demonstrated the possibility of transplanting pig kidneys. They announced the research results in Nature last month, stating that a monkey transplanted with a pig kidney survived for 758 days.
Notably, the pig organs transplanted this time had additional genes more suitable for humans than monkeys, and the research team expects better results when clinical trials are conducted on humans.
Attempts to transplant pig hearts into humans are also ongoing.
In September 2023, the University of Maryland School of Medicine announced that Lawrence Faucette, a U.S. Navy veteran, received a genetically modified pig heart after the procedure obtained emergency approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Faucette underwent the transplantation after he was diagnosed with end-stage heart failure and waiting for a human heart became unfeasible due to his deteriorating health.
He survived for a considerable period after the transplantation. But signs of rejection were recently detected, leading to his death 30 days after the heart transplantation.
The research team explained that rejection reactions are the most significant problem in surgeries related to pig hearts and human organs in cross-species transplantation attempts.
Meanwhile, as cross-species organ transplantation research shows potential, more companies are entering related businesses, including Novartis AG, Organ Recovery Systems Inc., Pfizer Inc., eGenesis Inc., Roche Holding AG, and Astellas Pharma Inc.
In Korea, companies like Optipharm Co. and GenNBio Inc. are engaged in cross-species organ transplantation business.
According to Data Bridge Market Research, the cross-species organ transplantation market is projected to grow at an annual average of 8.3 percent to $24.51 billion in 2029 from $12.95 billion in 2021.
By Ko Jae-won and Lee Eun-joo
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