September 12, 1995
Web posted at: 9:30 p.m. EDT
From Correspondent Charles Hoff
(CNN) -- Are pigs all alike? Sure, they all may have the same features, the same swine smell and the same piggy ways, but some pigs are special. Some pigs carry a human gene they pass on to their offspring -- and that makes them special to medical researchers.
British researchers are taking the first steps toward solving the shortage of organs available for transplants. Because certain pigs carry a specific human gene, researchers say they hope that, someday, they may be able to transplant animal hearts and kidneys into humans.
Dr. Christopher Sampler, who is the chief executive of Imutran Britain, says that Imutran has been working for 10 years to solve the problem of organ rejection. When a human body rejects animals hearts or kidneys, it's called "hyperacute" rejection, he says. Ordinarily, cross-species transplants are destined to almost instant failure from the violent rejection of the transplanted organ.
To get around the problem, British scientists added the human gene to provide what they describe as a "Teflon coating" to the pig organs. "We took the gene for human DAF (a form of DNA)," says Imutran's director of research, Dr. David White, "and with a very small needle and steady hand, we actually micro-inject that gene for human DAF, that piece of DNA, into the fertilized ovum of a pig."
Monkeys have lived up to 40 days after receiving the genetically altered pig organs. Researchers say that's a major advance, but not yet good enough for human trials.
If research continues and the numbers are increased, however, it could mean important news for patients. "If this technology succeeds and clinical trials show that it is successful, we will be able to help a lot more people with organ failure," says John Wallwork of Papworth Hospital's Transplant Services.
Thousands of people around the world await organ transplants, and many die before scarce human organs become available. Animal organs could someday become lifesavers of last resort. "One important thing to stress," says Professor John Fabre of the British Transplant Patient's Society, "given the choice, a human transplant will almost certainly be preferable to a pig transplant. The choice isn't always there."
Another advantage to using pigs for organ transplants is the relative lack of public outrage, since the animals are already destined for slaughter.
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