On the cutting edge: Pig hearts, pregnancy, and the frontiers of transplant immunology

We just participated in a wonderful little hour long live online chat at Science. Two experts were on hand to answer questions on the science of organ transplantation. The discussion centered a lot around xenotransplantation and immune responses to transplantation, as these were the main areas of research for the experts involved.

Pig Heart surgery

The future is now: performing pig heart surgery (Source: Flickr, Eric Schmuttenmaer)

While the answers to the questions were much more technical in nature than most Q & A’s, they were still very comprehensible. From that standpoint, it was a good demonstration in off-the-cuff science communication and how to do that effectively. Having also recently attended a panel discussion on social media and science outreach, I’ve been thinking a lot about how scientific knowledge and the latest research is increasingly disseminated through social media channels. And the nature of social media channels often requires researchers to re-think how they communicate the key points of their research to the public. Furthermore, this intimately connects to health outreach, which often requires those doing that outreach to effectively communicate biomedical information. For those of us who consider the bioethical and social ramifications of transplantation, if we are aware of the latest research and cutting edge possibilities, it helps us better formulate our own avenues of inquiry and anticipate the important issues our work must address.

One of the more interesting responses in the live chat was about xenotransplantation:

Comment From Herb V:

What is the current status of xenotransplantation for humans?

David Cooper:

Xenotransplantation is the transplantation of organs or cells across species barriers. We are trying to transplant organs and cells from pigs into humans, although at this stage we are still mainly working in the laboratory. the reason why we are exploring this approach is that there is a critical shortage of deceased human organs for transplantation. At present in the USA, there are 110,000 patients awaiting a donor organ of one sort or another, and yet this year only about 30,000 donor organs will become available. Donation by living donors helps, but obviously cannot provide hearts (or even lungs and livers in the number required). We are making good progress in the laboratory, mainly through genetically engineering pigs to protect their organs from the human immune response. We are putting into pigs human genes that express proteins that provide resistance to the human immunse response. Pig hearts have functioned well in baboons for periods of 8 months, but we need them to work for longer before we can transplant pig organs into humans.

Some of literary representation dealing with organ transplantation anticipates the furtherance of xenotransplant technology, but in contrast to the response above, can often pose it in some daunting, rather than propitious ways. Take for example, Ken McClure’s book Donor, which we’ve reviewed here at TransplantInformers. In a different turn, Nalo Hopkinson’s incredible book Brown Girl In the Ring imagines a world in which xenotransplantation is the norm but sociopolitical forces propel a quest to re-instate human organ transplantation. We hope to share more about her book in the future.

The speculative fiction and the scientific reality are not as distant from each other as we might think, but the speculation can often exaggerate or act as fearmonger. However, it is a testament to the power of xenotransplantation prospects as well as how narrative representations may give us a crucial locus for bioethical discussion. For an anthropology nerd like myself, I can also see how this might be an interesting point to cover in the emergent exchange on multispecies ethnography.

The live chat also covered more immunological details of transplantation and how this is shaping the research that is in the pipeline, as well as the current treatment and limitations. In tone, the discussion reflected a more measured response to questions of titillating possibilities, and explained some of the present constraints researchers are working with. And of course there were plenty of digestible tidbits of information on basic questions about transplantation.

Plus, the experts addressed our question about immunological processes of pregnancy in relation to transplantation! We’re especially interested in this since we’re in the midst of exploring connections between a documentary transnational mother-daughter relationships and related concerns in cord blood transplantation.

To see the answer to our question and the entirety of the chat go here:


One Response to “On the cutting edge: Pig hearts, pregnancy, and the frontiers of transplant immunology”
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    1. […] expert and doctor David Cooper whom we’ve highlighted in TranplantInformers previously is a well known researcher in this field . He is working to genetically engineer pigs to have a […]

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