A shortage of organs available transplants is a well-known challenge within modern medicine. But scientists are one step closer to solving that problem after making a major breakthrough with organs from animals.

An initial obstacle for xenotransplantation has been removing the threat of viruses from the animal in questions DNA. However, new research has opened up the possibility of animals being genetically modified and bred to be used to meet the demand for organs, with a focus being placed on potential from pigs.
Currently the need for healthy organs far outstrips the supply, leading to lengthy waits for patients but the use of pig organs harvested for transplants could solve the problem. While the idea has been around for years, the concerns over the potential for retroviruses founded in pigs to be fatal for humans have stalled developments.

Cutting edge research, however, has used the latest gene editing technique to remove this risk. It represents a significant step forward for xenotransplantation to become a reality. Of course, there are other risks that still need to be addressed.

Another key concern of pig to human transplants are the ethics behind the debate. Not only are there concerns from animal welfare activists but there are worries about obtaining informed and free consent from people that have little other options than to choose xenotransplantation. Regulations around using animal tissue is still developing and it could present a significant barrier to further experiments and uses in the future.

The next step for the cutting-edge research would be to further engineer the genetic makeup of the pigs to improve the safety. Should it go ahead, the pigs will be grown in the lab and will be the foundation of the research moving forward, paving the way for the first human to receive an organ from a pig in the UK.

Of course, there are other avenues being explored to solve the increasing issue of a lack of transplants. Among these is the idea that human organs could be grown inside another animal. These organs would be genetically edited so they would essentially be human but are grown inside an animal before being extracted and placed in the patient when ready. Another potential solution is the introduction of an ‘opt-out’ policy, which is already in place in Wales, which would assume consent for the general population unless people specifically object. This would mean that all patients who have viable organs for transplantation are considered, however opponents to this system point out that the number of people whose organs would be appropriate for transplantation is small will not solve the transplantation crisis.

Additional research is needed before the researchers can say that pig to human translation can work but we’ve taken a promising step in the right direction.