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Q&A: Pig-to-human heart transplant a transformative moment for medicine, expert says

Gary Robbins, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in Health & Fitness

Do I think people will continue to try to do it? 100 percent. It will accelerate the field, for sure.

Q: Are pig hearts greatly different than human hearts?

A: Believe it or not, they are more similar than primate hearts. We already use porcine valves in patients. But there are differences in the number of cells, the size of the organ, the way it grows. Some of the proteins are different. Their hearts are not the same as humans.

Q: Can you give me a sense of how difficult it is to manipulate pig genes in a way that it would be beneficial to humans with heart problems?

A: The advances (in genetics and cloning) that have been made in the past 10 years have made this possible. It’s getting much faster. But it still takes tremendous expertise and a lot of work, especially to change 10 genes.

The field is changing so much that we’re almost developing tools that are like genetic word processors where we can change genes in specific base pairs.

 

Remember, we’re already doing this in human patients now. We did our first genetic changes in the livers of patients recently to treat amyloid disease. The ability to change genetic code is developing at a rapid pace.

Q: There are more than 23,000 California residents on waiting lists for a variety of organs. Nearly 400 of them are seeking hearts. Do those people have reason to believe that pig-to-human heart transplants will become common in the next few years?

A: I wouldn’t advise anyone to change their plans based on this single patient. It’s just too early to tell. Optimistically, sure, we hope this could be very transformative. But I wouldn’t have anyone, like, go (say), “I can go out and party or I can have bacon because I could get a pig heart.’

The upside is that we are transplanting more than we ever have in California and San Diego by using other technologies. There are hearts available, there are things we are doing to make the use of every heart possible.

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