Scientists are transforming pig livers into human-like ones to address organ shortage

Could this be the future of organ transplants?
Loukia Papadopoulos
Scientists plan to transplant a pig liver into a human.jpg
Scientists plan to transplant a pig liver into a human one.

Miromatrix/ YouTube 

It's a widely known fact that healthcare professionals hope to transplant pig livers into humans. This process requires first that the animal liver be turned more human-like.

That's something that company Miromatrix is working on accomplishing, according to an article by ABC news published on Tuesday.

"We essentially regrow the organ," said Jeff Ross, CEO of Miromatrix. "Our bodies won't see it as a pig organ anymore."

The company has ambitious plans for the first-of-its-kind human testing of a bioengineered organ to take place sometime in 2023.

Once the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has given the go-ahead, the initial experiment will be outside a patient's body and will see a pig-turned-humanlike liver placed next to a hospital bed to temporarily filter the blood of someone whose own liver does not work. 

If that "liver assist" process proves successful, the next step would be attempting a bioengineered organ transplant, likely a kidney.

Science fiction come to life

"It all sounds science fiction-ey but it's got to start somewhere," said Dr. Sander Florman, a transplant chief at New York's Mount Sinai Hospital, one of many hospitals that have agreed to participate in the liver-assist study. 

"This is probably more of the near future than xenotransplantation," or directly implanting animal organs into people.

Scientists are considering this option because of the fundamental lack of available human organs. 

Scientists are transforming pig livers into human-like ones to address organ shortage
Human organs for transplants are rare.

"The number of organs we have available are never going to be able to meet the demand," said Dr. Amit Tevar, a transplant surgeon at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "This is our frustration."

Animals, however, can provide a sustainable source of organs, and bioengineering organs can make the transplantation of animal organs viable.

"That is something that in the long term may very likely contribute to the development of organs we can use in humans," added Tevar.

But to make these animal organs usable, the pig cells need to be stripped away as this removes some of the risks of xenotransplantation, such as lurking animal viruses or hyper-rejection. This process already has FDA approval for another purpose, the production of a type of surgical mesh.

A complicated process

Now, Miromatrix plans to use it to make animal organs suitable for human use. This is easier said than done, however.

"We can't take billions of cells and push them into the organ at once," Ross explained. When slowly infused, "the cells crawl around and when they see the right environment, they stick."

Currently, the firm uses rescued human organs to grow cells to repopulate pig liver or kidney scaffolds. One organ is enough for several animal ones.

Dr. Ron Shapiro, a kidney transplant expert at Mount Sinai, says Miromatrix's latest experiments are perfect for patients on dialysis who "will wait for years and years to get a kidney and likely die waiting on the list."

However, the FDA still has some questions about the liver-assist procedure, meaning it could be delayed. Will Miromatrix be able to meet all its requirements paving the way for a new future for organ transplants?