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Animal-To-Human Organ Transplants Expected Soon

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Duke Health News 919-660-1306

NEW ORLEANS, LA. -- As soon as a year or two from now, animal organs may be routinely transplanted into humans, a Duke University Medical Center researcher says.

Researchers have made "huge strides" in understanding the molecular basis of the immune system rejection that has prevented the use of animal organs for critically ill humans, said Duke professor Dr. Jeffrey Platt, an immunologist who has helped pioneer the science of "xenotransplantation," the transfer of organs and tissues between species.

"Once we understand this complicated rejection mechanism, we can design drugs and even donor animals to counteract it," he said. "In the past, we have had to wait for drugs to come along, which we then tested. Now, we can invent therapies."

Experiments ongoing at Duke demonstrate that organs transferred from one animal species to another can function without rejection for weeks, Platt said in a presentation prepared for a news briefing at the annual scientific meeting of the American Heart Association.

Of all animals, Platt believes that pigs are both the safest to use and they offer the "best fit" for humans. The threat of transfer of diseases from pigs to humans is minimal, he said. "Certain pig tissues, such as the skin and heart valves, have been widely used in humans for years, and in many cases pigs are less susceptible to disease than humans," he said.

Platt believes that hearts may be the first pig organs transplanted because human hearts are in such short supply for the thousands of patients who need them. "These people will die without a heart transplant. There is no other treatment available for them," he said. Similarly, researchers are studying the use of pig lungs, kidneys, and livers for humans, and much work has been done on using pig tissues as therapy, such as the transplantation and genetic engineering of pig pancreatic islet cells to treat human diabetes.

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