Two hearts beating in one baboon

Phil Collins probably never imagined his 1988 hit ‘Two Hearts’ would finally come true – albeit about the xenotransplantation of a pig’s heart into a baboon.

7th April 2016
Two hearts beating in one baboon (iStock)

Researchers have successfully transplanted a pig’s heart to a baboon, surviving in the primate’s body for two and a half years and raising hopes for animal organ transplants into humans.

How did they do it?

The process, known as Xenotransplantation, was carried out by US and German researchers from the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet Muenchen, who genetically modified pigs to reduce rejection reactions that usually occur after an organ transplant.

The pigs’ hearts were then transplanted into the abdomen cavity of baboons treated with an immune-suppressing antibody to stop the primates’ bodies from rejecting the new organ.

By implanting a second heart without removing the natural one, the baboon heart continues to pump blood around the body while the beating pig heart is used to examine possible rejection reactions.

Was it a success?

The implanted hearts beat normally and as long as the primates received the antibodies, even responded to the baboon’s growth hormones, growing to the size of the host’s heart. Significantly, the pig heart was able to survive for a record 945 days (about two and a half years), smashing the previous maximum of 500 days.

But when the scientists reduced the drug’s dose, the baboons’ bodies rejected the hearts after eight to ten weeks.

Will it save human lives?

Hopefully. "This has the potential to really move the (organ transplantation) field forward," says Richard Pierson, professor the University of Maryland and co-author of the study. "This new approach clearly made a difference. We obviously have a lot more work to do, but I'm confident that eventually this will be useful to human patients."

If the scientists succeed in transplanting a pig heart into a human chest, this new technique could shorten the waiting time for a transplant organ and save thousands of lives.

It would also bring a creepy new meaning to this Phil Collins hit.

Would you be willing to receive a pig's heart?

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