Cross-species organ transplants set to increase

By Catherine
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Written by Catherine Bolgar*
Augmented reality heart

Almost 115,000 solid organs were transplanted in 2012, which was less than 10% of global needs, according to the Global Observatory on Donation and Transplantation. In the U.S., 18 people die daily while waiting for an organ transplant.

Xenotransplantation, or transplants from other species, could provide an unlimited supply of organs and cells. Huge strides have been made in this area in the past decade, but challenges remain.

After initially focusing on primates such as baboons and chimpanzees, researchers have turned to pigs, which grow quickly to the appropriate size and which are in abundant supply. However, the human immune system reacts more strongly to pig organs than to human organs.

If you put a human organ into a human with no anti-rejection treatment, it will survive about a week,” says David K. C. Cooper, professor of surgery at the University of Pittsburgh’s Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute. “If you put a pig organ into a human, it will last five to 10 minutes. There’s a much stronger immune response.”

Sugar molecules, called galactose oligosaccharides, on the surface of cells in the pig organ provoke human antibodies into action. So scientists have been genetically modifying pigs to knock out the genes that produce the offending sugar.

That helps, but it isn’t enough. Researchers are trying to delete other genes responsible for major antigens recognized by the human immune system and to add protective human complement-regulatory proteins. Complement proteins are part of the system that destroys cells that the body has identified as being foreign. Differences in how pigs and humans control blood coagulation also is a challenge—too much coagulation and you get thrombosis, not enough and you get bleeding. Now some pigs have been modified to express human anticoagulants. A number of pigs have different combinations of added or deleted genes.

It’s becoming much more precise the way you can genetically modify the pig,” says Peter Cowan, scientist director of the Immunology Research Centre at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne and president-elect of the International Xenotransplantation Association. “The thing with xenotransplantation that you can’t do with humans is you can keep modifying the donor. You can identify new problems and can keep adapting the pig to the human recipient. In that respect, pig donors might be as good as, if not better, than human donors in the long run.”

Heart valves from ordinary pigs have been used in humans for years, with best results in older patients whose immune systems are less robust. The valves are treated with agents that protect the pig cells, and therefore injury to the cells is slow, Dr. Cooper says.

Some of the biggest hopes are transplants of pancreatic islet cells, which produce insulin. Pig islets transplanted into nonhuman primates have successfully reversed diabetes.

Sixteen humans with Type 1 diabetes received pig islets in a clinical trial in New Zealand, eight in Argentina and eight in Russia, according to Living Cell Technologies, the Australian biotech company conducting the trials. To protect against immune response, the islets were encapsulated. The patients were able to reduce, but not completely stop, their insulin doses.

The World Health Organization estimates that 347 million people worldwide have diabetes. One day, successful transplants of pig islets could let diabetics regulate their insulin levels without the need for insulin injections.

Successful pig organ transplants are farther in the future. Two baboons at the U.S. National Institutes for Health currently have pig hearts transplanted into them. One has been beating for more than a year and the other for more than two years. “That’s a big step forward,” Dr. Cooper says. However, the baboons’ own hearts are still beating alongside. “We are now asking the question of whether, if you replace the baboon heart with a life-supporting pig heart, will you obtain the same result?”

Next in order of difficulty come kidneys, livers and lungs, all of which present coagulation challenges in addition to rejection.

One of the big concerns in using animal donors is the transfer of diseases to humans. The genome of any pig individual is unique, so each pig has a different set of porcine endogenous retroviruses, or PERVs. These PERVs aren’t transmitted by infection, like other viruses, but instead within cells, from mother to child. “This is the inherent risk that pig cells realize,” says Ralf R. Tönjes, head of the “non-vital tissue preparations, xenogenic cell therapeutics” section at the Paul-Ehrlich-Institute in Langen, Germany. “We have the tools and diagnostic techniques to screen the pigs for the presence or absence of infectious PERVs.”

In addition, “all the exogenous germs have to be excluded from any donor pig used for xenotransplantation,” Dr. Tönjes says. “This is the law. Any bacteria, viruses and fungi we know that could be harmful for the recipient have to be excluded by the proper screening program realized by the preclinical breeding facility. We’re talking about bacteria like staphylococcus and viruses like herpes. It’s a real, real effort.”

Pigs offer advantages in terms of germs. “You’re actually less likely to get a virus going from pig to human than from chimpanzee to human because of the distance between the species,” Dr. Cowan says.

The donor pigs can be raised in controlled, clean facilities, and constantly screened for pathogens. With human donors, “in many cases you don’t know what the donor has. There are some viruses that if you just recently got infected won’t show up in tests before an organ is transplanted,” he says. Except for cases where someone is donating a kidney or part of his liver, human donors are dead, and doctors can’t ask about medical conditions.

Working on multiple fronts—genetic modifications to donor pigs, new immunosuppressants and anti-inflammatory drugs—researchers hope to get to a point where transplants from pigs survive as long as transplants from humans.

If we resolve the remaining problems, the impact of xenotransplantation would be immense,” Dr. Cooper says. “Xenotransplantation could offer cures for millions of people world-wide with conditions like diabetes, Parkinson’s or corneal blindness, as well as organ failure.”

*For more from Catherine, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join The Future Realities discussion.

Challenges and Opportunities of Feeding an Expanding, Aging Population

By Catherine
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Written by Catherine Bolgar

Food has its fashions, with form and function battling for dominance. Convenience, low-calorie, locavores, organic, functional food, indulgent excesses…what’s next?

Personalized nutrition, nutrition density, immediacy and alternative proteins are some of the key words for the future.

Personalized nutrition


We’re going to see even more diversity of choices, as well as products aimed at specific population groups, says Gerhard Rechkemmer, president of the Max Rubner Institut, a food and nutrition research organization in Karlsruhe, Germany.

In the future, that will go into what we call personalized nutrition,” he says. “You will have the genetic or metabolic design of a person and provide food for their needs.”

The microbiome—the bacteria in the gut—is even more genetically diverse than the genes in our own bodies. These bacteria “have a metabolism as we do, but it’s something we don’t much understand yet,” says Peter Weber, a medical doctor and nutritionist in Kaiseraugst, Switzerland. “In the future, we will understand better how the different systems in the body interact.”

While the outlines of a prudent diet are known, new research results in adjustments to details like recommended daily requirements for various nutrients. That’s likely to go further, with adjustments based on individuals’ genetic makeup.

Nutrition density

Two rapid changes are affecting our relationship with food that will make nutrition density a key trend in the future. First, our lifestyle has become much more sedentary, even within the past few decades. Second, we are living much longer.

In both cases, we are eating more calories than we need. The result is the explosion in obesity—a 28% increase in adults and 47% increase in children in the past 33 years, with the number of overweight and obese people hitting 2.1 billion in 2013, according to the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013, published in The Lancet.

Yet even though we’re eating too much, we aren’t getting the nutrition we need. “When we talk about nutritional challenges, we typically start off with developing countries because that’s so obvious,” Dr. Weber says. “But in affluent societies we also have micronutrient inadequacies.”

On a global level, about 37% of people have insufficient vitamin D serum levels and only 12% are within the desired range, Dr. Weber says, adding that about 90% of Americans aren’t getting enough vitamin E. The World Health Organization estimates 250 million preschool children lack enough vitamin A, which puts them at risk of blindness.

As people age, their bodies absorb less of the micronutrients in food. The challenge in the future is “how we can make appropriate food which is micronutrient dense, with not too much energy and which tastes good,” Dr. Weber says.


Snacking in the U.S. represents half of all “eating occasions.” While people say they are looking for something healthy for more than half of those snacks, “planning is hard. People are time-stressed. Their lives are hectic,” says Laurie Demeritt, chief executive of The Hartman Group, a food research and consulting firm in Bellevue, Washington.

People prefer to make decisions about food close to the eating occasion, to choose based on their mood at the moment. “They don’t like to plan. They eat on a whim. It changes how we view food,” she says.

As a result, retail formats are adapting to serve people who want to buy something to eat at the last minute, by serving freshly prepared offerings. Food-service operators also are making it possible for people to call in an order that they can run in to pick up. It’s a trend that’s likely to grow.

Twenty or 30 years ago, there were certain places where you could buy food,” Ms. Demeritt says. “Now there are more options for food procurement, and not so much pressure for planning.”

Even though 60% of millennials say they enjoy cooking, they aren’t talking about cooking from scratch, she says. “They want to get a sauce that’s prepared, but they’ll choose the vegetables, for example. They’re looking for the manufacturer to be the sous-chef and still let them have choice and creativity.”

Alternative proteins

As the world population climbs toward an expected peak of nine billion, there’s a question of how people will get enough to eat, especially as people who enter the middle class in developing countries tend to adopt the same kind of meat-heavy, processed diets common to affluent societies.

When the Chinese began to drink more milk, it had an impact on the global milk supply,” Dr. Weber says. “If we have three billion more people to feed in the future, from where should we provide protein? From even better farming? From plants? From artificial proteins that you grow in a lab? These are opportunities and challenges.”

Protein ties into the aging of society as well, because older people need to consume more protein to deal with muscle wasting.

senior woman cutting vegetables on chopping board in kitchen

However, in Europe and the U.S., vegetarian and vegan diets are becoming more popular, says Dr. Rechkemmer of the Max Rubner Institut. India shows that “a vegetarian diet supplies sufficient protein if you have products available. It remains to be seen whether that trend will continue.”

However, in Europe and the U.S., vegetarian and vegan diets are becoming more popular, says Dr. Rechkemmer of the Max Rubner Institut. India shows that “a vegetarian diet supplies sufficient protein if you have products available. It remains to be seen whether that trend will continue.”

For more from Catherine, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join The Future Realities discussion.