Germany breeds New Zealand pigs for human heart transplants

A former farm in Germany is breeding small pigs for pig-to-human heart transplants. The farm is now a laboratory for molecular animal breeding and biotechnology, owned by Munich’s Ludwig-Maximilians University (LMU).

LMU chose Auckland island pigs, originally from New Zealand, as the best candidates for pig-to-human heart transplants because the animals are smaller and have fewer viruses.

Scientist and LMU Chair Eckhard Wolf has been researching animal-to human-transplants, known as xenotransplants, for 20 years.

“Our job is to genetically modify the donor pigs so that their organs are not rejected after transplantation into humans,” he told news agency Reuters. “We have to introduce genetic modifications, namely switching off three pig genes and adding at least two human genes.”

Scientists produce pig embryos from cells with human genes. These embryos are then inserted in the uterus of a pig. After three months, three weeks and three days, the time that a pig is pregnant, a genetically modified pig is born.

Three weeks ago, the University of Maryland Medicine in the United States implanted a genetically-edited pig heart into a man. The American donor pig was genetically modified; four pig genes were removed, and six human genes were added.

But even though the surgery was hailed as a breakthrough, animal welfare organizations heavily criticized the use of animals as organ donors. 

German animal groups have questioned the research in Munich. They strongly oppose the idea of pigs as organ factories, adding that the organ transplant experiments on monkeys leave them to die in agony.

In February 2019, the German organization Doctors Against Animal Experiments collected over 57,000 signatures, calling for a ban on xenotransplantation research.

“Even as animal rights activists, we still have sympathy for anyone who advocates xeno-transplantation. But in terms of animal welfare, it is not justifiable, and it is also another way for humans to exploit and abuse an animal,” Kristina Berchtold, spokeswoman for the Animal Welfare Association Munich, said. “Animals should not serve as spare parts storage for humans.”

Wolf argues that their stalls are more spacious than those used for commercial farming. “Our facility is permitted to breed and keep livestock for the purposes of animal testing,” he said.

“The animals have significantly more space than, let’s say, in standard agricultural animal keeping,” Wolf added. In the coming two to three years, Wolf said that Germany would also attempt to transplant a pig heart in a human. Until then, the pig hearts are tested on monkeys. 

One day, Wolf thinks it will also be possible to transfer pig kidneys to humans. “However, the studies in primates have shown that the results in kidney transplantation are not yet as consistent as with the heart,” Wolf said.

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