Modified pig organs may correct birth defects in humans

A team of doctors in Britain have perfected the use of modified pig organs to treat newborn babies with birth defects. Babies born missing a section of their oesophagus, the tube linking the mouth to the stomach, are to receive the transplants harvested from pigs and then modified using the child’s stem cells.

‘The Australian’ an online news portal reported that the landmark lifesaving treatment would be used next year at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London on about 10 children born with severe cases of oesophageal atresia (EA). Similarly, the research team also plans to develop the treatment for adults suffering oesophageal cancer, a far more common and often fatal condition. Esophageal atresia (EA) is a congenital defect, meaning that it occurs before birth.

There are several types. In most cases, the upper oesophagus ends and does not connect with the lower oesophagus and stomach.

Most infants with EA have another defect called tracheoesophageal fistula. Oesophageal atresia can be diagnosed in the foetus at about 20 weeks.

The first children for next year’s trial could be identified in coming months. Oesophagi of varying sizes have been taken from pigs at a British farm in readiness.

These “animal scaffolds” will be modified to remove all their cells. They will then be re-engineered using the child’s stem cells, making them suitable for transplant and avoiding rejection by the patient’s body.

The stem cells will be taken the moment after birth from the babies’ muscle and residual oesophagus. The tissue engineering takes about eight weeks and doctors hope to implant the modified oesophagi at about two to three months after the child is born.

Although 90 per cent of oesophageal atresia cases are treatable via a relatively simple procedure to close the gap, in severe cases the only option is for doctors to surgically move the child’s stomach into the chest cavity.

This can create complications throughout the patient’s life and place them at a greater risk of oesophageal cancer, according to Paolo De Coppi, a consultant pediatric surgeon at Great Ormond Street who is behind the new treatment. Professor De Coppi previously pioneered a similarly groundbreaking transplant in 2010 in which a 13-year-old boy was given a new trachea that was created from a deceased human donor using the teenager’s stem cells.

“This is completely new. Pigs have been used for heart valve replacement for many years, but nobody has received an organ developed from an ‘animal scaffold’ this way,” he said.

Professor De Coppi is also developing a treatment to help children born with shortened bowels, which will again use pig organs and stem cells, either harvested from the bowel or even the child’s skin, to build a new intestine for transplants. He hopes to introduce this in 2020.

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