Harvard Researchers May Have Found a Way to Use Pig Organs for Transplants

Donating animal organs to humans would help more patients get the transplants they need.

For years, scientists have believed that making strategic changes to animals’ genomes could make their organs suitable donors for humans—but making those changes has proven difficult.

A team of Harvard researchers, however, may have just found a solution in one unlikely animal: the pig.

The research, conducted at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University and Harvard Medical School, successfully made edits to the pig’s genome in 62 different locations, using a system known as CRISPR Cas-9. This record-high number shattered the previous ceiling of six simultaneous edits.

Using this technology, the team was able to inactivate retroviruses in the organs that could cause disease in a human host and had, until now, prevented suitable transplant from the pig to human patients. The implication of this seemingly bizarre study? “The door is now open on the possibility that humans could one day receive life-saving organ transplants from pigs,” according to a statement from the Wyss Institute. That’s huge news for the roughly 120,000 Americans awaiting an organ transplant.

If this seems like a page out of a sci-fi novel, consider this: Pigs are actually quite physiologically similar to humans. They’ve been the focus of significant research about transplanting organs from one species to another, a practice known as xenotransplantation. According to the statement, pigs’ heart valves are regularly de-cellularized for use in human heart valves, and pig kidneys are sometimes transplanted into baboons. 

In fact, one of the only major obstacles standing in the way of transplanting whole organs from pigs to humans has been the potentially harmful retroviruses inherent in their cells—the ones Harvard’s researchers were able to eliminate.

The team expects this research to help further xenotransplantation and overcome organ shortages, ultimately improving patients’ chances of receiving the surgeries they need.