Dr. Shana Kelley, a professor of pharmaceutical sciences and biochemistry, and Dr. Shaf Keshavjee, a professor of thoracic surgery — two researchers at the University of Toronto — have been working to revolutionize organ transplantation with microchips. In medicine, a biomarker is a measurable indicator of the severity or presence of a disease. The aforementioned microchips are called fractal circuit sensors (FraCS) and were designed to test for infection but have been refashioned to locate biomarkers in lung tissue. Although this research is focused on lung transplants, Dr. Kelly says that “any assessment that can be made on the basis of specific molecular markers can be carried out with our chip.” In other words, the innovative microchips could ideally transform the entire organ transplantation practice. Additionally, for the many individuals on waiting lists, implementing this technology would significantly decrease waiting times and allow for more lives to be saved.
It is important to note that human-to-human organ transplantation has only been around since the 1950s, and scientists have worked for many years to develop animal-to-human transplants. While pigs are genetically distant from humans, they are a target because pigs are easy to breed and their organs are of a similar size. Pig valves have actually already been used successfully in heart transplants.
Cross-species transplantation has been typically impossible to sustain since the human immune system is built to reject foreign organs, however, researchers are getting creative! Companies like Revivicor are breeding pigs that posses certain genetic similarities to humans. Specifically, the pig’s genome is modified by adding human thrombomodulin, a protein that coats the epitopes, or the part of the pig cells that determines whether antibodies can attach themselves or not. Thus, these genetically modified pigs are made to seem more human, and the human body is less likely to reject their organs.
Keep in mind that pig-to-human transplantation is still undergoing research. Some main concerns are the idea of trying to “outwit evolution” and the disregard for animal rights. Another is the risk of cross-species infections such as swine flu or other diseases that may prove too strong for the human immune system. Overall, these experiments have the potential to promote expansion of further innovation in the field of organ transplantation.