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EditorialsEditorial: Medical miracle

Editorial: Medical miracle

Published: 12th Jan 2022 11:45 pm

It’s truly a watershed moment in medical history that offers hope to millions of patients with failing organs. For the first time, American surgeons have successfully transplanted the heart of a genetically engineered pig into a human patient. The ground-breaking procedure will have major implications in future and could help transform the way we handle the acute shortage of donor human organs. At present, thousands of patients die across the world, waiting for organs. If we could use genetically engineered animal organs, they would never have to wait. Medical researchers have been trying to use animal organs for what is known as xenotransplantation — the process of grafting or transplanting organs or tissues from animals to humans — for decades but with mixed success. In India too, in 1997, a transplant surgeon from Assam, Dr Dhani Ram Baruah, along with Hong Kong surgeon Dr Jonathan Go Kei-Shing had conducted a pig-to-human heart and lung transplant in Guwahati but the patient died soon after. Humans have been intrigued by the idea of transplanting organs from animals to humans for eons now, as evidenced by a host of mythological characters — from Ganesha in Hinduism to Daedelus in Greek mythology. What the US surgeons at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore achieved during the eight-hour-long procedure last week was no mean task. It was the first successful transplant of a pig’s heart into a human being. The pig used in the transplant was first genetically modified to knock out several genes that would have led to the organ being rejected by the patient. The pig had 10 genetic modifications and a growth gene was also inactivated to prevent the pig’s heart from continuing to grow after it was implanted.

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For the medical team who carried out the transplant, it marks the culmination of years of research and could change lives around the world. The new heart is functioning and already doing most of the work. The surgery would bring the world a step closer to solving the organ shortage crisis. Pig hearts are anatomically similar to human hearts, though not identical. The bigger issue here is organ rejection. These pigs are bred to lack genes that can cause rejection. Pigs offer advantages over primates for organ procurements, because they are easier to raise and achieve adult human size in six months. Pig heart valves are routinely transplanted into humans, and some patients with diabetes have received porcine pancreas cells. Pig skin has also been used as a temporary graft for burn patients. Researchers hope procedures like this will usher in a new era in medicine in future when replacement organs are no longer in short supply for those patients waiting for kidneys and other organs. The risks in such experimental surgeries are huge, but so are the potential gains.

 

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