Written by By By Helen Tsao, CNN Hong Kong, Hong Kong
We’ve long believed that the human body is immortal. No matter how old or how decrepit they are, we’ve considered people of all ages to be young enough to develop at their own pace, versus running on empty.
A new report published in the journal Cell Stem Cell now raises doubt over this notion, as scientists led by Brett Segal from the University of California Berkeley reported a successful transplant of pig intestines into a 30-year-old female patient.
“The body is young, but the organs aren’t,” Segal told CNN.
Emma England-Wright’s transplant followed a diagnosis of uterine fibroids, a common uterine cyst disorder which can lead to fertility problems and early menopause.
In late 2015, the patients’ physicians implanted human pig kidneys into the patient, prompting a cell-to-cell transfusion. The most recent findings reveal that the animal kidney worked just as well as its human counterpart.
Harvesting organs from humans remains challenging and raises ethical questions. This is the first time however that any known animals have successfully undergone a human-to-human organ transplant.
Segal says that in the future, he hopes to transplant pig organs into people who have grown to look like them due to their inability to produce enough pigment in their eyes. Other possible candidates are people with genetic disorders such as Huntington’s disease and others with rare diseases that cause organ failure.
“It shows that a lot of these diseases are problems of blood supply,” Segal said. “The problem with some transplant diseases is that people die from the organ failure.
“Our hope would be to study the way that the kidneys respond to our current diseases, and optimize how we treat patients. I think this could help you live a longer, happier life.”
Segal was assisted by Yiping Bao, of the Sunnyvale Medical Center. “The idea of a transplant and the idea of pig-to-human transplant were researched 10 years ago,” Segal said. “I think the time was right now to do a pig-to-human transplant, as the younger patient is able to give a blood donation, and the chance for rejection is low.”
From average human beings to a warrior angel
Throughout the months-long transplant procedure, both patients were fitted with a skin patch and hooked up to medicated drips to prevent rejection of the transplant.
Segal says the surgical technique went well with the goal of regenerating the recipient’s endocrine, metabolic and immune system.
The team studied the ways the patients responded to the transplanted organs and confirmed that the pig kidneys worked as well as their human counterparts.
This pioneering technique could potentially be used to perform the same procedure on hundreds of thousands of people, Segal says.
The case is just the latest in a series of controversial medical developments.
Three-year-old Jadon and Anias McDonald recently became the youngest parents to have a liver transplant. They now beat all their medical records, and are thriving with healthy liver cells, according to Dr. James Drummond from the University of Pittsburgh.
“They used much more cells, almost equivalent to what we get in an embryonic liver. They used a baby’s liver cells that never truly die,” Drummond said.
Cancer patients undergoing a mastectomy could soon benefit from this experimental procedure. Currently, these types of surgical patients will risk serious complications due to the removal of their breasts, but James Slater from the University of Oxford says that they could be helped if the donor breast tissue used is akin to a mother’s milk.
“Most likely, a mastectomy could benefit from more novel (possible) techniques such as introducing breast cells into the woman’s own, as breast milk will protect the marrow from any debris, or any foreign cells that would normally destroy the bone marrow,” Slater told CNN.
“Some of the older conventional techniques such as skin-sparing mastectomies may not be able to function in this scenario.”
“The methods that we have to transplant cells into people seem to be improving rapidly,” Segal said. “They’re doing a lot more now and we hope to revolutionize how these kinds of surgeries are done in a very secure way and very scientific manner.”