Massachusetts General Hospital surgeons Nahel Elias (left) and Tatsuo Kawai performing the transplant. (Credit: Massachusetts General Hospital/ CC-By-SA-2.0)

In a world first, doctors at the Massachusetts General Hospital (Mass General) in Boston have successfully transplanted a genetically modified pig kidney into a living person. The March 21, 2024, announcement came just months after the successful completion of similar transplants in deceased individuals. The historic four-hour surgery took place on March 16, 2024. The 15-member transplant team included experts who had spent their entire careers working on organ research.

"Right after the restoration of the blood flow to the kidney, the kidney pinked up immediately and started to make urine," said lead surgeon Dr. Tatsuo Kawai. "It was the most beautiful kidney I had ever seen."

Kidneys are the most needed and transplanted organs (Credit: Public Domain)

The organ recipient, 62-year-old Richard Slayman, had end-stage kidney disease. He had received a human kidney from a donor in 2018. However the organ began to fail in 2023, forcing Slayman to resume dialysis.

Due to his condition, Slayman was eligible for the animal organ under the US Food and Drug Administration's "compassionate use" program. This program allows patients with life-threatening conditions to access experimental treatments. They are often the patient's last hope. This was certainly true for Slayman.

There is a severe shortage of transplant kidneys (Credit: Public Domain)

The pig kidney was obtained from eGenesis. The biotechnology company edited the organ's DNA to remove harmful pig genes and added certain human genes to ensure it would not be rejected by Slayman's body. Antibodies were also added to prevent the risk of infection in the patient.

The Mass General medical team hopes the pig kidney will function well for many years. However, animal-to-human organ transplants are still in the early stages, and there are many unknowns. But so far, the signs are encouraging. On March 25, 2024, the doctors said that Slayman was already walking the hospital halls and may even be allowed to go home soon.

"It really is a groundbreaking milestone," said Dr. Winfred Williams, the Associate Chief of Nephrology at Mass General. "Should the kidney continue to work well and this is a success, I think it represents a breakthrough in a number of different areas."