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Pig organs for transplant in 10 years
Lewis Smith | November 07, 2008
ORGANS from pigs could be widely available for transplanting into patients in a
decade, leading British medical researcher and media presenter Robert Winston
The first organs suitable for transplanting, most likely kidneys, are expected
to be ready within three years and, if tests are successful, their use could be
widespread by 2018.
A herd of as few as 50 pigs is expected to be kept as breeding stock to provide
organs “to order” and to slash waiting times for thousands of people needing
Professor Winston, of Imperial College, London, and his collaborator, Carol
Readhead, of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, are leading
research into transplanting animal organs into people.
Lord Winston, as he is known after being made a Labour peer, is also well known
for being the presenter of hugely popular BBC human science programs such as
The Human Body.
The researchers are attempting to breed pigs that have been genetically
modified so that porcine organs are accepted by the human body instead of being
Human immune systems are quick to react to “foreign bodies” but the scientists
are confident that they are close to modifying the genetic make-up of pigs to
“humanise” their organs and make animal-to-human transplants possible.
The humanisation process of the organs is expected to be achieved by breeding
genes into the pigs, probably by injecting them directly into the parent boar’s
testicles, that provoke a greatly reduced response in the patient’s immune
Patients who received pig organs would have to take immune suppressant drugs
for the rest of their lives, but no more than those who received organ
transplants from other people.
Dr Readhead said it was comparatively easy to bring about such genetic
modification in mice, but the process is much harder in pigs and other large
A “mini-pig” weighing about 100kg has been selected for the research because,
while a quarter of the size of most of those grown for the meat industry, they
are big enough to have organs of a similar size to adult human beings.
Pigs are regarded as ideal for animal-to-human transplants,
xenotransplantation, and other research because of the similarity in the
physiological make-up and because they get many of the same diseases, such as
Dr Readhead said: “Our interest was to try to make transgenic pigs for
biomedical research to understand human diseases better and eventually to try
to make their organs suitable for xenotransplantation.”
Professor Winston said that “organs that might be transplantable” could be
ready “within two to three years” and on the basis that research went smoothly
they would be fully licensed and tested in as little as ten years. He expected
the first “proof of principle” pigs to be bred next year.
Two months ago he hit out at the “red tape” blocking the project’s progress in
Britain. Under UK and EU rules, his team has been banned from mating and
producing offspring from the transgenic pigs. Research in developing transgenic
pigs is now likely to move to the US where the regulatory system is more
The new strain of pig, which once established would retain its genetic
modifications from generation to generation, is expected to take £3 million to
develop over the next five years.
He said that transplants were one of several potential benefits from the
research. Others include enabling drugs which today have to be tested on people
during late development phases to be tested on animals, avoiding reactions such
as that suffered during trials at Northwick Park Hospital in 2006 when six
volunteers almost died.
Dr Readhead said kidneys are likely to be the first pig organs that researchers
attempt to transplant into a sick human. “The kidney is a really good
candidate,” she said. “There’s a huge shortage and it would make a big
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