Globally, there is a shortage of viable organs for human transplant with the organ donor waiting list stretching for years depending on the transplant requirement and underlying factors. Sadly, a significant number of people on the list never end up getting to the top, and receiving the organ donation that could save their lives. However it’s not just about organ availability, it’s also about viability in that in order to ensure a successful organ transplant, the organ donor and recipient need to firstly be a blood-type match to make sure that the organ doesn’t get rejected based on an incompatibility of antibodies. In an effort to address the shortage of organs as well as the lifespan of an organ between the death of a donor and the time it takes to transplant it, scientists and researchers have begun testing a number of potentially viable alternatives. For organs that come from human donors, it is essential that even if the donor body is medically brain-dead, that the body is kept alive and functioning to sustain the organs until this can happen. The same is required from a non-human donor, such as the genetically modified pigs that have been at the forefront of organ donation alternatives.

On January 7th of 2022, a Baltimore man received a heart transplant from a pig. This was a ground-breaking surgery that made greater strides then all those that came before it. Xenotransplantation is the “transplantation of living cells, tissues or organs from one species to another.” Prior to January’s monumental surgery, all previous attempts had failed due to the fact that human patients very quickly rejected the animal organs as they were essentially incompatible. David Bennett Senior died two months after the genetically modified pig heart was transplanted; he was ineligible for a human heart transplant and therefore opted for the experimental surgery. Even though the transplant was ultimately unsuccessful in that the recipient died, according to Dr Muhammad Mohiuddin, scientific director of the Maryland University’s animal-to-human transplant program, “we have gained invaluable insights learning that the genetically modified pig heart can function well within the human body while the immune system is adequately suppressed.”

Medical researchers in the US have been working on the longevity of pig organs, by partially reviving them an hour after the animal has died. The idea is twofold in that it looks to address two of the greatest issues when it comes to organ transplants – viability of organs and time, which hopefully this technique will assist in addressing. The technique also looks to challenge what we know and what we assume happens after the body has effectively died. Professor Nenad Sestan of Yale University asserts that “[they] can restore some functions of cells, across multiple vital organs that should have been dead. These cells are functioning hours after they should not be.” The technique uses synthetic blood so as not to clot, as well as carry an increased amount of oxygen around the body, as well as a number of chemical compounds to assist in the “calming of the immune system” and then lastly, a device that is used to replicate the heart’s function by circulating the fluid around the body. There is a lot of research still required before this technique could ever hope to be utilised on humans, but it provides hope that there may be viable ways of sustaining organ life prior to a transplant and in turn, increasing the chances of success.