HealthFirst - ABC.com
Pigs make some of the best donors for human transplants.
HealthFirst reporter Leslie Toldo tells us why humans seem to thrive with at least one type of transplant from pigs.
We are talking about tissue transplants, and from hernias to plastic surgery, pigs are helping a lot of humans out.
A few years ago, moves like these didn't come easily for Chris Nelson. "I was having pain even standing for an extended period of time."
Nelson had a hernia in his groin. The muscle had torn. Instead of using donor tissue, doctors repaired it with material made from the small intestines of pigs.
"It did seem almost weird science or something like that," Nelson admitted.
"Pigs have been a very popular or common animal to use. Believe it or not, their genetic makeup is pretty close to humans," said bariatric surgeon Dr. Samer Mattar.
When placed on the torn tissue, the body uses the pig part as a scaffold or guide to remodel and repair itself. Over time, the pig's tissue is replaced by human tissue, providing a permanent repair.
"Over time, it's very hard to distinguish where the graft or the pig's tissues are versus the patient's," Mattar said.
Besides hernias, the pig tissue can be used in ulcer repair, wound care, plastic surgery and weight loss surgery. Doctors say, compared to a human donor, the pig tissue has less risk of causing an allergic reaction.
"No pain whatsoever. It's great," Nelson said.
"I would say my game's getting better, but I probably wouldn't be honest at that point."
But he's satisfied with simply feeling better.
There is a chance the body will see the animal based tissue as a foreign and reject it.
BACKGROUND: Human cells or tissue can be used for implantation, transplantation or infusion into a human recipient. A transplant occurs when a recipient's damaged or failing organ or tissue is replaced with a functioning one from a donor. Donors can be living or deceased. Organs that can be transplanted include the heart, kidneys, liver, lungs, pancreas and intestine. Bones, tendons, cornea, heart valves, veins and skin are types of tissues than can be transplanted.
RISKS: Rejection is a major concern with transplants. This happens when the body does not accept the transplanted organ or tissue. During rejection, the body's immune system attacks the transplanted organ or tissue, which causes failure of the transplant. The rejected organ or tissue must then be removed and the patient must wait for a different one. However, tissue transplants have a lower rejection rate than organ transplants.
According to the American Association of Tissue Banks, over the past 20 years, there have been more than 10 million tissue transplants. However, like many other medical procedures, tissue transplants carry their own risks. To lower these risks, tissue donors are screened and tested for a wide range of diseases. In addition, the tissue is thoroughly processed in systems that can destroy or inactivate any bacteria or viruses.
PIGS AS DONORS: Transplantations between two different species, such as pigs and humans, is known as xenotransplantation. Pig skin and pig valves have been used in human transplants, but not entire organs. Research shows when a tissue is torn in a human, the body can use tissue from a pig's small intestine as a guide to repair itself. Over a period of time, the pig tissue assists in regenerating the human tissue, forming a permanent repair. According to research found in the journal Transplantation, transplants from pigs might actually be safer than transplants from humans in the long run. Jeffrey Platt, M.D., head of the Transplantation Biology Program at the Mayo Clinic, says advanced organ screening for infections and other problems and the freedom to schedule surgery in advance may better prepare the patient's immune system for the foreign tissue.
One major concern with species-to-species transplants is transmission of animal disease to humans. However, studies have shown that pigs are healthier and carry fewer diseases than other animals. In addition, compared to other animals, their anatomies are more similar to humans.
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