University of Pennsylvania doctors hooked a genetically-modified pig liver up to a brain-dead patient and were able to have the organ successfully filter the man's blood for 72 hours, according to the university, making the technique a potential bridge for patients as they wait for a human liver transplant.
Doctors performed the procedure in December 2023 with a pig liver developed by biotech outfit eGenesis, the university reports. Scientists modified the pig liver so that it would not be rejected by the human immune system.
Unlike previous procedures where doctors transplanted pig organs directly into the human body, doctors in Pennsylvania chose to perform an "extracorporeal perfusion," in which the pig liver is hooked up outside the human body.
In the case of this experiment, doctors had the pig liver stored in a mini-fridge sized device that is usually used to keep human organs alive and perfused with blood for eventual transplant into a patient. They then hooked up the pig liver device to the brain-dead patient and were able to have the unique Rube Goldberg contraption filter blood successfully with no sign of inflammation in the pig organ.
The researchers see this experiment being used clinically as a critical bridge for very ill patients as they wait for a human transplant. Unlike a transplant that's implanted inside a person's body and which is meant to stay put for years, the doctors see the pig livers for this procedure being used temporarily for a way shorter period of time.
The researchers also see this kind of procedure being used for patients who suffer from an acute liver injury and who need time to recover normal liver function. In that case, the pig liver device combo could serve as high tech crutches until the patient's own liver fully heals.
"Any time a patient dies while waiting for a transplant, it is a tragedy, and we are always working to develop new ways to extend their lives," said the presiding surgeon Abraham Shaked in a statement. "The success of the first part of our study is significant for those facing liver failure, offering a glimpse into a future where innovative solutions can bring hope to patients who might otherwise be destined to die while waiting for a transplant."
More on pig organs: Man is Doing Well With Implanted Pig Heart, Doctors Say