Pigs poised to save lives

Evan Harding evan.harding@stuff.co.nz



Stuff NZ Newspapers


National News

A major medical advance in the US has given encouragement to a New Zealand company aiming to get the kidneys of its Southland-based pigs transplanted into terminally ill humans. This week, a US patient received a heart transplant from a genetically modified pig, in a groundbreaking procedure. The patient, David Bennett Sr, was said to be doing well three days after the operation, with the new heart beating and pumping blood. The news was welcomed by Dr Paul Tan, the New Zealander behind the plan to have gene-edited pig kidneys transplanted into humans suffering from end-stage kidney disease. The story is a slow-burner, starting in 1999 when Invercargill mayor Sir Tim Shadbolt used his mayoral fund for 17 pigs to be transported from the subantarctic Auckland Islands to Invercargill by the Rare Breeds Conservation Society. Invercargill ratepayers funded the quarantine before anyone knew about the pigs’ scientific worth. The Auckland Island pigs were found to be valuable for research because they were free of common infections. A company called Living Cell Technologies, of which Tan was chief science and medical officer, housed them at a Southland facility, initially with the aim of transplanting the infection-free pig cells into humans for diabetes treatment, before focussing on Parkinson’s disease treatment. But in 2017 another company called NZeno, which Tan founded with Bob Elliott and Olga Garkavenko after he left Living Cell Technologies, took over the facility. Its plan was to breed pigs with gene-edited kidneys that could be transplanted into humans, and that plan remains in place. This week, Tan, the NZeno director and chief executive, said the company’s work was important because there would never be enough human kidney donors. Recent medical advances in the US involving pig organ transplants to humans were encouraging, and they highlighted the need to develop gene edited pig kidneys in New Zealand, Tan said. The pig heart transplant in the US this week was preceded in 2021 by the US family of a brain-dead woman allowing a geneedited pig kidney to be connected to her before she was taken off life support. The kidney was not rejected by her immune system and remained functional for 54 hours. Given the advances, Tan said he now expected additional reports from other research groups of pigs with different combinations of gene edits for specific organs. ‘‘This shows the need to develop gene-edited pig kidneys here in New Zealand,’’ he said. ‘‘We simply have to do it. Our advantage is that we do not need to gene-edit for pig retroviruses as our pigs do not secrete infectious virus. Our policy is to do the minimum gene edits to achieve a successful pig kidney transplant.’’ Specific pig genes must be edited to ensure a better match between the pig organ and the human recipient. Tan said he expected to use the sows from the herd to deliver gene-edited pigs in late 2022.