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Genetics Unzipped Podcast: Exploring the science of xenotransplantation

In the latest episode of the Genetics Unzipped podcast, Dr Sally Le Page and Dr Kat Arney delve into the seemingly science fiction world of xenotransplantation – taking organs from animals and transplanting them into humans.

Have a heart

In January of this year, surgeons performed the first ever operation to transplant a heart from a genetically modified pig into a human, a 57-year-old man called David Bennett.

Mr Bennett had been suffering from severe heart failure, and as he was not eligible for a human heart transplant, he consented to this ground-breaking operation. Although he did well initially, sadly he passed away two months after receiving the new heart, and it has not been made public whether this was due to an issue with the xenotransplant itself or a consequence of his general poor health.

Even so, this is still a remarkable scientific and medical development. To find out why, Sally sat down with Dr Rohin Francis, a consultant cardiologist who also runs the popular science YouTube channel, MedLife Crisis.

“This is a really historical first because it potentially is the start of this new era where the end goal, ideally, is that nobody has to die waiting for a transplant,” Rohin says. “There’s always been an interest in xenotransplantation, trying to use animals as a resource to get these organs. Actually the first one people may be surprised to hear was attempted way back in the 1960s, which was a spectacular failure because we simply didn’t understand the immunology at all then.”

Making pigs more human

Genetically modifying pigs to be organ donors for humans comes with many technical and ethical challenges.

Kat chatted with Professor Angelika Schnieke, chair of livestock biotechnology at the Technical University of Munich, to discover more about how to produce GM pigs and

the potential risks posed to human health by porcine endogenous retroviruses (PERVs) – viruses lurking within the pig genome.

They also discussed the concept of growing human organs inside pig hosts for the purposes of transplantation.

“Ideally what people had hoped is that we can make chimeric animals, so when you take the embryo from a pig add human cells to it. You have to also delete some genes so that the animal’s organ can’t grow,” Angelika explains.

But would this approach actually be feasible?

“Well, it still doesn’t work,” she says, “There are differences between species, and of course there are a lot of ethical problems.”

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Genetics Unzipped is the podcast from the UK Genetics Society, presented by award-winning science communicator Dr Kat Arney and produced by First Create the Media.  Follow Genetics Unzipped on Twitter @geneticsunzip, and the Genetics Society at @GenSocUK

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