Biotech

Last week, a person got a pig heart—here’s the firm that helped make it happen

Revivicor genetically modifies pigs so that their organs are more likely to be accepted by humans.
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University of Maryland School of Medicine

· less than 3 min read

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For the first time ever, doctors have transplanted a genetically modified pig heart into a human.

The University of Maryland Medical Center announced the successful transplant on Monday, and said the patient was doing well (three days post-surgery). Similar animal-to-human transplants—called xenotransplantation—have almost all eventually failed due to rejection of the organs. That could still happen here, despite the promising start.

But, but, but: This time, scientists used the heart of a pig that had undergone gene editing to eliminate a sugar believed to cause rapid organ rejection in humans. A regenerative medicine company called Revivicor provided the modified heart for this operation, after receiving FDA approval for its genetically engineered pigs in December 2020.

If the name (and story) sound familiar, it’s because in October, Revivicor developed a genetically modified pig kidney that was successfully transplanted into a person for the first time.

  • Revivicor is owned by biotech firm United Therapeutics, which purchased it for $7.6 million in 2011.
  • In 2003, Revivicor was spun out from PPL Therapeutics—a UK-based company that was the first to clone a mammal (remember Dolly the sheep?).

For its part, United Therapeutics considers “organ manufacturing and transplantation”—including xenotransplantation, but also 3D-printing of organs—to be one of its five therapeutic platforms that will lead “to significant revenue growth over the medium and longer term.”

  • Right now, most of UT’s revenue comes from the sale of its Tyvaso and Remodulin products, both of which help with pulmonary hypertension.
  • The company made $445 million in Q3 2021, up from $380 million in Q3 2020, and is profitable.

Big picture: Although the patient for this surgery was terminally ill and had no options beyond this experimental procedure, the operation was questioned by some bioethicists. Animal rights groups like PETA oppose xenotransplantation, both on the grounds of animal cruelty and the potential for spreading disease.

Still, others see the risks as worth the potential reward.

“If this works, there will be an endless supply of these organs for patients who are suffering,” Dr. Muhammad Mohiuddin, scientific director of the university’s animal-to-human transplant program, told the Associated Press.

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