Medical milestone: Doctors successfully perform first pig kidney transplant in human with promising results

By Claire Wolters | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published March 28, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • The first pig kidney transplant was conducted in a human this March.

  • Pig kidney transplants and other animal organ transplants in humans are only approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)under certain circumstances, such as when a person’s life is at risk and no other treatment is available.

  • Following the success of the transplant, some hope that the agency will extend this approval in the future to help fight the organ shortage in the US.

Surgeons initiated the first pig-to-human kidney transplant this March at Massachusetts General Hospital. Some think this success could pave the way for more pig organs and other animal organ transplants.[]

On March 16, doctors successfully conducted a pig kidney transplant in Richard Slayman, a 62-year-old man with end-stage renal failure. Slayman previously underwent a typical kidney transplant in 2018, which had begun to fail, requiring him to return to dialysis, according to Nature. He also experienced complications that required frequent hospital visits, Nature reported.[]

Slayman’s health and complications are what made him a candidate for the pig kidney transplant, which is not FDA-approved for all people who need a kidney transplant. Xenotransplantation, including pig kidney transplants, is only FDA-approved for certain “compassionate use” scenarios in which a person’s life is at risk, and other treatments are unavailable, according to Nature.[]

Not just any old pig

The kidney used in the pig kidney transplant did not come from any ordinary pig. This was a miniature pig that had undergone CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing by the biotech firm eGenesis in Cambridge, MA. Prior to the transplant, scientists at the biotech firm modified 69 of the pig’s genes. These edits were intended to prevent organ rejection or any pig-to-human virus transmission, according to Nature.[]

CRISPR pigs had been used for pig kidney transplants in animal trials but not for transplants involving humans. Previously, monkeys underwent pig kidney transplants and survived for up to two more years. Scientists made different gene edits to the pig before transplanting a kidney into the human than they did before transplanting one into a monkey due to the differences between the species.[]

Addressing human organ shortages

While the pig kidney transplant is only approved for limited, compassionate use scenarios in humans, some hope that the success of the first procedure will pave the way for broader use in the future. Notably, there is an extreme organ shortage in the US, with 103,223 people on the national transplant waiting list.  Seventeen people die each day waiting for an organ transplant, according to data from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) reviewed in February 2024.[]

Luhan Yang, the chief executive of Qihan Biotech in Hangzhou, China, and a founder of eGenesis is one of those people. Yang told Nature that xenotransplants can “provide hope and life for patients and their families.”

The FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research has also emphasized the importance of continuing to study xenotransplants for their potential uses in treating human disorders.[]

“The world-wide, critical shortage of human organs available for transplantation and advances in genetic engineering and in the immunology and biology of organ/tissue rejection have renewed scientists' interest in investigating xenotransplantation as a potentially promising means to treat a wide range of human disorders,” the center stated in its PHS Guideline on Infectious Disease Issues in Xenotransplantation, which was published in 2001 and will expire in 2025. In the guidelines, the center also discusses the need to ensure that xenotransplantation procedures do not contribute to disease spread.[]

What this means for you

Following the success of the first pig kidney transplant in a human, some experts hope that xenotransplantation guidelines can be expanded to reach a wider population of people in need of organ donations.

Share with emailShare to FacebookShare to LinkedInShare to Twitter