Bacon, sausage, and other pork products aren’t generally considered heart-healthy foods. But for those with heart failure, pigs might one day offer a healthy option. In January 2022, surgeons at the University of Maryland performed the first successful transplantation of a pig’s heart into a human patient. While genetically-modified pig organs are not yet been approved for regular use, the FDA granted the patient emergency authorization to undergo the experimental surgery as a last resort to save his life.
While this patient was not eligible to receive a human heart, the chances of receiving one are slim for those who are. Annually, only around half of the 4,000 Americans waiting for a heart transplant receive one. Just a third of hearts donated prove suitable for transplantation.
For over a century, scientists have turned to other species for their organs – from skin to kidneys to corneas. The practice is called xenotransplantation. In 1964, a chimpanzee’s was the first animal heart to beat in a human chest – for only 90 seconds. Twenty years later, a baboon heart gave Baby Fae 21 days. Gene editing revived prospects for xenotransplantation. 2021 saw the first successful transfer of a pig kidney to a brain-dead human – an important step toward xenotransplantation for living recipients
The success of xenotransplantation has been curtailed by the body’s tendency to reject foreign substances – whether flu virus or a different species’ body part. Every organ recipient must take immunosuppressives to limit the likelihood of rejection; animal parts are particularly unwelcome. The pig whose heart was transferred had been genetically engineered to be more compatible with a human host.Pigs still don’t fly. Designed swine, however, could offer a different kind of miracle.