Scientists make significant leap in heart transplant research

7 December 2018        

Category: Research

New research published in Nature this month reveals a baboon transplanted with a genetically-modified pig heart can survive for up to six months – the longest recorded survival in history.

Surgeons perform a heart surgery.

A heart transplant is currently the only cure for heart failure, but organs are hard to come by and hundreds of people die every year while on the waiting list. Scientists have long been trying to find new ways of tackling the global epidemic of organ shortage, with many exploring the potential of pig heart transplantation as a viable option. 

Now, a team of researchers in Munich, Germany have shown - for the first time - that a baboon given a pig’s heart is able to survive for up to 195 days; a development that marks a significant step in transplant research and could one day pave the way for pig hearts to be used in humans.

However, it’s clear that  more extensive studies are needed before this could become a reality.  

A long way to go

Professor Jeremy Pearson, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, said:

“The potential to solve the shortage of available human hearts for transplantation by using pig hearts has been an aspiration for scientists for more than 40 years, but has proved to be a difficult journey. The biggest hurdle is rapid rejection of the pig heart by the human immune system. This has been largely overcome by the development of genetically modified pigs, that have successively reduced this complication. However, it is still not clear whether longer-term organ damage and rejection may remain a problem. 

“This new research takes us a step closer to the use of pig hearts in humans. However the results still fall short of the need for more extensive and longer-term studies before the first pig heart is transplanted into a human. To be seriously considered for use in humans, studies will have to demonstrate greater success than a mechanical pumping device, and ensure that potential safety complications due to viral transmission from the transplanted heart to the recipient can be discounted.”

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