Surgeons Are Transplanting Genetically Engineered Pig Skin Onto Humans
It’s a key first step toward using pigs to solve the world’s donor organ shortage
In a pathogen-free facility in Grafton, Massachusetts, a small town about 40 miles west of Boston, genetically engineered miniature pigs are being bred to donate their skin to humans.
Their skin, which looks remarkably similar to the human variety and is referred to as Xeno-Skin, will be transplanted by surgeons at Massachusetts General Hospital to a small group of burn victims in an attempt to speed up the healing process. It’s the first experiment approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to use genetically engineered animal tissue in humans, a necessary step toward someday transferring entire organs grown in animals to people who need them — a process known as xenotransplantation.
The need for such organs is dire. Each day, 20 people die waiting for an organ transplant. More than 113,000 people in the United States are currently waiting for one, while only 36,528 transplants were performed in 2018, according to government data. Every year, the waiting list grows, greatly outpacing the number of available organs. For decades, researchers looked to animal donors as a way to ease this chronic shortage, but transplants from animals have often failed.
“As humans, we’re just a bag of fluids and our skin is the plastic bag.”
Xeno-Skin, developed by Boston-based biotech company XenoTherapeutics, shows promise. So far, one patient has received the genetically engineered pig skin graft, and five more burn victims are slated to receive it. The grafts are meant to be temporary and will be removed once the patients’ own skin has grown back. Doctors involved in the trial say the donor tissue appears to be healing as well as a human skin graft, which was transplanted next to the pig skin for side-by-side comparison. The process also hasn’t caused negative reactions like provoking an immune response or transmitting animal viruses, two major issues in xenotransplantation. “We’re trying to replicate exactly the same mechanisms that are used in the standard of care, or the gold standard treatment, for severe and extensive burns,”…