TR10: Organs à la carte

• Who?

eGenesis, Makana Therapeutics, United Therapeutics.


From 10 to 15 years.

Last year, for two months, a 57-year-old man named David Bennett lived with a pig’s heart beating inside his chest. Surgeons at the University of Maryland transplanted it to see if a genetically modified pig heart could keep a person alive.

There are many more people who need a transplant to live than those who can get it. Every year some 130,000 organ transplants are performed around the world, but many more people die waiting for it or without even getting on the waiting list to get it.

Animal organs are a possible solution, but it is not easy to overcome the human body’s natural reaction against them. For example, sugars on the surface of porcine tissue can cause our immune systems to go into attack mode. Drugs can help dampen that response, but it’s not enough, so the biotech industry is turning to gene editing to modify pigs, removing sugar molecules and adding other genes to make the animals look more human.

By editing the DNA of pigs in this way, several biotech companies have created animals whose organs are more compatible with human bodies. Although Bennett died and a porcine virus was detected in the transplanted organ, the doctors who treated him assure that the transplanted heart never developed the classic signs of organ rejection. Now, they plan to carry out new studies with more patients.

In the future, organ engineering could do without animals altogether. Researchers are beginning to study how to design complex tissues from scratch. Some are 3D printing lung-shaped scaffolding. others are growing organoids from stem cells to mimic specific organs. In the long term, the researchers hope to be able to grow custom-made organs in factories.

Whether grown on animals or built in manufacturing plants, an unlimited supply of organs would make transplantation more widespread and give many more people access to spare parts.

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