Making human-like pig livers to try to ease organ shortages

In an effort to ease the country’s organ shortage, scientists are transforming pig livers to look and act like humans.

Workers in a suburban Minneapolis lab dissolve the pig cells that powered the organ, leaving ghostly, semi-translucent scaffolds floating in large jars. To complete the metamorphosis, they infuse those shells with human cells from donated livers that were not transplanted.

The process is highly experimental, but maker Miromatrix is ​​making plans for first-step human trials — an experiment outside a patient’s body to see how well a bioengineered liver can filter blood.

“We’re basically regrowing the organ,” said Jeff Ross, CEO of Miromatrix. “Our bodies will no longer see it as a pig organ.”

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A technician replaces the medium in a bioreactor containing pig kidneys at a Micromatrix laboratory on Tuesday, Dec.  8, 2022, in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.

A technician replaces the medium in a bioreactor containing pig kidneys at a Micromatrix laboratory on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2022, in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.
(AP Photo/Andy Clayton-King)

Miromatrix plans the first human trial of a bioengineered organ to begin testing sometime in 2023.

The initial experiment will be outside the patient’s body if the Food and Drug Administration agrees. Researchers would place a human-turned-pig liver next to a hospital bed to temporarily filter the blood of someone whose liver has suddenly failed. And if this new “liver assist” works, it would be a critical step toward eventually attempting a bioengineered organ transplant, most likely a kidney.

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A pork liver that has been "disappeared" is performed by a technician in a Micromatrix laboratory on Tuesday, December.  8, 2022, in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.  The first step for workers at this suburban Minneapolis lab is to shampoo off the pig cells that have made the organ do its job, their color gradually fading as the cells they dissolve and are removed.  What remains is a rubbery scaffolding, a honeycomb structure of the liver, its blood vessels now empty.

A technician at a Micromatrix lab has a pig liver that was “de-sealed” on Tuesday, December. 8, 2022, in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. The first step for workers at this suburban Minneapolis lab is to shampoo off the pig cells that have made the organ do its job, their color gradually fading as the cells they dissolve and are removed. What remains is a rubbery scaffolding, a honeycomb structure of the liver, its blood vessels now empty.
(AP Photo/Andy Clayton-King)

“It all sounds like science fiction, but it has to start somewhere,” said Dr. Sander Florman, head of transplantation at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, one of several hospitals already planning to participate in the liver-assistance study. “That’s probably more of a near future than xenotransplantation,” or the direct implantation of animal organs into people.

A label on a bioreactor indicates it contains a pig kidney at a Micromatrix lab on Tuesday, Dec.  8, 2022, in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.

A label on a bioreactor indicates it contains a pig kidney at a Micromatrix lab on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2022, in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.
(AP Photo/Andy Clayton-King)

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More than 105,000 people are on the US waiting list for an organ transplant. Thousands of people will die before it’s their turn. Thousands more don’t even make the list, which is considered too far.

“The number of organs we have available will never be able to meet the demand,” said Dr. Amit Tevar, a transplant surgeon at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “That’s our frustration.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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