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For the first time, we have managed to transplant a pig kidney into a human being: a therapeutic success that opens the door to revolutionize the world of transplantation

For the first time in history, a team of surgeons has achieved transplanting a pig kidney into a human without triggering immediate rejection of the recipient’s immune system. We are talking about news with an impressive journey in a world in which our transplant technology has been improving day by day, but the organs to be transplanted have not.

Spain is getting closer to doing 4,000 kidney transplants a year, but even so there are few. And it is very frustrating to have everything to be able to save many lives (or improve the quality of many others), but not be able to do anything. Just wait. Above all, because although we have been able to do xenotransplantation and we believed that they could change everything: We have been learning that we were unable to get the most out of it. Until today.

The arrival of genetically modified pigs in medicine

Pig kidneys, for example, have high concentrations of ‘galactose-alpha-1’ (‘alpha-gal’), a well-known oligosaccharide that triggers almost immediate rejection. In fact, this molecule causes a well-known type of red meat allergy, the so-called ‘alpha-gal syndrome’. Years ago, United Therautics Corp decided to try create a genetically modified pig so that it does not have this allergen and that people with this syndrome could eat them.

In December 2020, the US FDA approved GalSave for human consumption (and included, as a possibility, its sanitary use). That’s when the NYU Langone Health team in New York City decided get down to business and test live if these pigs could be a good source of xenotransplantation.

They selected a brain-dead patient who had been suffering from kidney dysfunction problems and convinced the family to carry out the experiment before life support was withdrawn. For about three days, analyzed kidney function and the results were “quite normal”. For example, the kidney produced “a normal amount of urine,” explained Dr. Robert Montgomery, a transplant surgeon and director of the study at Reuters.

The patient’s creatinine levels (caused by her poor kidney function) were also seen to return to normal with the new kidney. It is a glittering success. However, we should not sell the bear’s skin before hunting it. The good results of this experimental transplant open the door to start using these kidneys (and other organs) in patients with problems. But this just started. As long as the kidney was only three days in the body, future work could find other problems. Of course, today, if you think so, we are going to get the good news.

Imagen | National Cancer Institute