Pigs and human organs: The groundbreaking study setting the science world alight

This is the first time a solid humanised organ has been grown in another species

Maggie O'Neill
Friday 08 September 2023 15:18 BST
Five-organ transplant kid

Chinese researchers successfully grew humanised kidneys in living pigs, according to new research published this month in the journal Cell Press.

The authors of the new report published on 7 September wanted to focus on kidneys because they are among the first organs that develop, and they’re commonly transplanted, according to a statement on the new paper.

“Rat organs have been produced in mice, and mouse organs have been produced in rats, but previous attempts to grow human organs in pigs have not succeeded,” senior study author Liangxue Lai, a researcher at the Guangzhou Institutes of Biomedicine and Health, Chinese Academy of Sciences and Wuyi University, said.

“Our approach improves the integration of human cells into recipient tissues and allows us to grow human organs in pigs.”

The team carried out their research by creating a niche within pig embryos where kidneys could be developed. These embryos were eventually transferred to “surrogate” pigs. After either 25 or 28 days, they terminated gestation to determine if humanised kidneys had successfully been developed.

“The researchers collected five [of the embryos] for analysis…and found that they had structurally normal kidneys for their stage of development and were composed of 50-60 per cent human cells,” the statement said.

“We found that if you create a niche in the pig embryo, then the human cells naturally go into these spaces,” senior study author Zhen Dai of Guangzhou Institutes of Biomedicine and Health said.

The study paves the way for more research that might benefit the field of human organ transplantation. However, the authors of the new report acknowledge this may take many years.

“Because organs are not composed of just one cell lineage, in order to have an organ where everything comes from the human, we would probably need to engineer the pigs in a much more complex way that also brings some additional challenges,” senior study author Miguel A Esteban of Guangzhou Institutes of Biomedicine and Health said in the statement.

However, the new study does represent a milestone, marking the first time researchers have been able to grow a solid humanised organ inside a different species.

“Before we get to that late state of making organs that can be on the shelf for clinical practice, this method provides a window for studying human development,” Mr Esteban said. In turn, he added, researchers can further study diseases and learn more about manipulating human cells.

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