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Commentary: Pigs can help solve organ donation problem

CHICAGO: There’s long been a gap between the relatively small number of organs available for transplant and the long waiting lists of potential recipients. This week, the world got a little closer to a future in which pigs – yes, pigs – could narrow that gap.

A new study, published in Nature, showed that a monkey lived for two years after receiving a gene-edited pig kidney. The remarkable feat, one of several this year in the once-stagnant field of animal-to-human transplantation (also known as xenotransplantation), is an important step. We might finally be at a point where edited organs from one species can help patients of another.

Of course, so far nearly all of those patients are monkeys. The critical next phase: Clinical trials in humans.

That is a big leap, to be sure. But researchers are quickly amassing enough data from primates – and from limited experiments with people – to support the eventual launch of small, careful studies in humans.

NOT ENOUGH ORGANS FOR TRANSPLANTS

The need is certainly sufficient to justify the carefully calculated risks a human trial would entail. Every day, 17 people die in the United States while waiting for an organ transplant. Even if everyone in the country signed their donor card, there still wouldn’t be enough viable organs to meet the need.

“There are patients out there who are going to die and not get a transplant,” says Megan Sykes, director of the Columbia Center for Translational Immunology. “For the right patient group, it might be appropriate to move ahead with some of these trials.”

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