If you’ve ever known someone waiting for an organ transplant, then you know what it’s like. They walk around with a beeper like a high school senior waits by the mailbox for an acceptance letter. They jump at any electronic beep, hoping it’s the good news that they’ve been waiting to hear.
The problem with the system isn’t that it’s unfair. The problem is that there aren’t enough available organs for everyone that needs them.
There is hope though. There might be a time in the near future when we can look to animals to provide organs for the critically ill. Though our closest relative is the primate, an attempt in the early ’80s to transplant a baboon heart into a young girl was unsuccessful. But it turns out that pigs are our closest relatives, at least when it comes to organs.
In fact, we’ve been using pigs in medicine for a long time. Heart valves from pigs have been successfully transplanted into humans since the late ’60s. Medical schools have used pigs for simulations for decades as well.
Even Jamie and Adam from Mythbusters used pigs as human analogues on numerous occasions.
Unfortunately, not all organs that get transplanted work out. Whenever something new is introduced into the body, the body recognizes it as an invader and tries to combat the foreign agent. Normally, this is a good thing, because that’s what keeps us safe and healthy throughout the year.
It’s not such a good thing when the new organ is seen as an enemy that needs to be evicted.
That’s why doctors try to match the organs that they have with the people that need them. They look at the blood type and proteins to get as close a match as possible. If the match is not close enough, the body will try to fight off the organ.
There are two things that can be done to reduce the likelihood of rejection. The typing is the first part. The second part is immunosuppressive medications. Unfortunately, this leaves the body vulnerable to other infections.
But, there is a way that scientists can strip away the protein markers that allow the body to recognize the organ as a foreign agent. So far, this research is applicable only in pig kidneys, but researchers are hopeful that it will translate to other organs.
Maybe sometime within our lifetimes we will see an end to the system of organ transplants that leaves so many people waiting. Until then, let’s take a moment to appreciate how the humble pig is good for so much more than bacon.