Advances in transplant technology could pave the way for the use of animal organs in people some day — which could help solve the problem of the donor organ shortage, researchers say.

In a new study, scientists transplanted hearts from genetically engineered pigs into baboons whose immune systems had been suppressed, to prevent them from rejecting the transplants.

The transplanted hearts survived in their recipients for more than 500 days, the researchers reported on April 28 at a meeting of the American Association for Thoracic Surgery in Toronto. The research has not been published in a peer-reviewed medical journal, but it has been submitted for publication. [Humans 2.0: Replacing the Mind and Body]

About 120,000 patients are waiting for organ transplants in the United States — far more people than the number of human donors, said Dr. Muhammad Mohiuddin, chief of transplantationat the National Institutes of Health's National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

"If we do these transplants using nonhuman donors, we will be able to save most of these precious lives," Mohiuddin told LiveScience.

Transplanting organs from animals, known as xenotransplantation, could replace human organs completely, or provide a stopgap until a human organ becomes available. But tissue rejection by the recipient's immune system remains a major hurdle to successful transplantation.

To overcome this problem, Mohiuddin and his colleagues used hearts from pigs that had been genetically engineered to remove genes known to cause tissue rejection in humans, and replaced them with human genes that wouldn't cause an immune reaction. Pigs were chosen because their anatomy is similar to humans', and they mature very quickly.

The researchers implanted hearts from these pigs into the abdomens of baboons, without replacing the monkeys' original hearts but still connecting the pig hearts to the baboons' circulatory system.

The transplanted hearts survived in the baboons for more than 500 days, with the baboons taking immunosuppressive drugs, the researchers reported.

"Now, we are at a stage when we can control the rejection — the most difficult part," Mohiuddin said.

The next step will be to perform transplants that replace the baboons' hearts with the genetically engineered pig hearts. The researchers couldn't say when the animal transplants might move to clinical trials in humans. The researchers can only move on to human trials if they show that the process works in baboons, Mohiuddin said.

Besides the heart, other tissues could also potentially be transplanted from animals to humans, including the liver, kidneys, pancreas and lungs, Mohiuddin said.

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Animals could one day become human organ donors
Advances in transplant technology could pave the way for the use of animal organs in people some day.