Skip to main content
Move the World.
pig organ transplant

Researchers have healed damaged human lungs by hooking them up to live pigs — a promising new method to increase the number of viable organ transplant donors.

Donor lungs are hard to come by, as evidenced by the 1,075 people on the waitlist for lung transplants between June 28 and July 4. Only 54 of them received a transplant, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing.

Because they only come from cadavers, donor lungs often come with their own set of problems, like swelling from excess fluid or traumatic injuries. Typically, doctors use a machine called EVLP ("ex vivo lung perfusion") to revive the damaged lung, readying it for organ transplant.

The machine keeps oxygen and nutrients flowing through the lungs for six hours, buying them time to heal. But this rarely works, leaving only a quarter of donor lungs available to become transplants.

A team of researchers at Columbia University in New York aimed to solve this problem by connecting donated human lungs to live pigs.

The team, led by Columbia's Matthew Bacchetta and Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic, tested this method with five donated lungs, which were too damaged to qualify as viable transplant organs.

Using a pig as a "bioreactor" — essentially, a stand-in for the human body — researchers found that the animal could run all of the biological processes needed to keep the organ alive. The researchers piped blood from arteries and veins in the pig's neck to the donor lung, circulating the pig's blood through the human organ. At the same time, they pumped air into the lung with a mechanical ventilator.

Essentially, the lungs borrowed the pig's circulatory system to buy them 24 hours of healing time. And, surprisingly, it worked.

"All of a sudden, (the lungs are) attached to a functioning liver, a functioning gut. We don't have to worry about glucose regulation because there's a pancreas. All of these metabolites that are formed are now cleared," Bacchetta told STAT. "We used a fairly standard immunosuppressive regimen and took these rejected lungs and showed that we could actually sustain them and make them better."

"You could treat organs injured outside the body until they're working well."

Robert Bartlett

In just 24 hours, the lungs improved. One lung healed enough to be used for an organ transplant, even though it previously failed to meet the criteria after the standard six hours with the EVLP machine. The study, published in Nature Medicine, suggests that with more time connected to the pig, the lungs could have healed even more.

University of Michigan medical researcher Robert Bartlett is known for developing a lifesaving heart-lung technology. He says that keeping organs healthy outside the body for a longer duration could be an organ transplant game-changer. "You could have perfect matching. You could treat organs injured outside the body until they're working well. So that's what Dr. Bacchetta and his crew are working on. And they're doing a marvelous job," Bartlett told STAT.

This work shows promise for reducing the shortage of qualifying donor lungs for an organ transplant, and extending their shelf life from 6 hours to 24 hours. It also shows promise for research. The cross-circulation between the pig and organ could keep organs healthy for lab research. And, perhaps just as surprising, the pigs were unharmed in the process.

Up Next

On The Fringe
Growing Human Organs in Pigs
Growing Human Organs in Pigs
Watch Now
On The Fringe
Growing Human Organs in Pigs
Twenty people die every day in the U.S. waiting for an organ transplant. There aren’t enough organs for the 100,000...
Watch Now

Twenty people die every day in the U.S. waiting for an organ transplant. There aren’t enough organs for the 100,000 people waiting for one. And there likely never will be… unless we can find a better way to source them. Enter: the pigs. A team of scientists has figured out how to grow human organs in pigs. It might make you feel weird. But it also might save countless lives.

Superhuman
Can Genetically Modified Pigs Be the Key to Treating Rare Diseases?
Can Genetically Modified Pigs Be the Key to Treating Rare Diseases?
Watch Now
Superhuman
Can Genetically Modified Pigs Be the Key to Treating Rare Diseases?
When it comes to rare diseases, doctors often don’t have enough patients to determine the effectiveness of various treatments. Now, scientists are breeding pigs with the same genetic code as people with a disease in order to create a pool of test "patients" unlike any before.
Watch Now

There are thousands of diseases known to modern medicine without any cure or treatment. Many are too rare to get much attention from doctors, governments, or drug companies. But the gene editing tool CRISPR is offering hope for people with rare and hard to study diseases, like the genetic disease known as NF1. There are tens of thousands of Americans with this tumor-causing nerve disease, but because it has over 4,000...

Healthcare
FDA Approves First Artificial Pancreas for Young Children
Artificial Pancreas
Healthcare
FDA Approves First Artificial Pancreas for Young Children
The FDA has approved a new artificial pancreas for children, making diabetes management easier for caretakers of diabetics as young as two.

The FDA has approved a new artificial pancreas for children, making diabetes management easier for caretakers of diabetics as young as two.

Mental Health
MDMA Has Long-Lasting Benefits as a PTSD Treatment
PTSD Treatment
Mental Health
MDMA Has Long-Lasting Benefits as a PTSD Treatment
The benefits of MDMA therapy as a PTSD treatment appear to last for at least a year, according to a newly published paper.

The benefits of MDMA therapy as a PTSD treatment appear to last for at least a year, according to a newly published paper.

Food
"Doomsday" Seed Vault Now Contains Over 1 Million Samples
seed vault
Food
"Doomsday" Seed Vault Now Contains Over 1 Million Samples
Norway's Svalbard Global Seed Vault, also known as the “Doomsday” Vault, now contains more than one million varieties of seeds from across the globe.

Norway's Svalbard Global Seed Vault, also known as the “Doomsday” Vault, now contains more than one million varieties of seeds from across the globe.

Digital Detectives
Hackers Find Missing People for Fun
Hackers Find Missing People for Fun
Watch Now
Digital Detectives
Hackers Find Missing People for Fun
This search and rescue expert discovered that many missing people had nobody looking for them. Then he had an idea: what if hackers made a game out of finding missing people through the internet?
Watch Now

One unfortunate truth that anyone involved in a missing person case quickly learns is that there are more missing people in the world than there are available resources to find them. The first few days after a person goes missing are the most crucial for finding them safe and sound. However, since missing people tend to turn up on their own, these cases are initially given low priority. The exception is if there's a strong...

Dispatches
How Redesigning Labs Can Demystify Genetic Science
How Redesigning Labs Can Demystify Genetic Science
Dispatches
How Redesigning Labs Can Demystify Genetic Science
"Scientists work in high-security buildings that are banned to the public and then wonder why they are misunderstood."
By Brook Muller

"Scientists work in high-security buildings that are banned to the public and then wonder why they are misunderstood."

Dispatches
Personal Genetics Might Solve the Opioid Crisis – and the Pain Crisis
Personal Genetics Might Solve the Opioid Crisis – and the Pain Crisis
Dispatches
Personal Genetics Might Solve the Opioid Crisis – and the Pain Crisis
Why does pain hurt more for some people? Why do others feel nothing at all?
By Erin Young

Why does pain hurt more for some people? Why do others feel nothing at all?