Health & Wellness

How Pigs Could Save Human Lives

Pigs still can’t fly, but they may soon be able to be organ donors


By Katrina Caruso


According to the Government of Canada, 4,500 Canadians were waiting for organ transplants in 2016 (the latest year for which we have figures). While more than 2,800 organs were transplanted, 260 people died waiting for an organ. And the number of those needing a transplant is on the rise. This country’s organ donation rate is lower than that of the United States, and not every available organ is going to be a match.

Given the current and expected demand for healthy, compatible organs and an inadequate supply, it shouldn’t come as too much of a shock that scientists are looking to animals to help—specifically, the common pig. Pigs breed quickly (their gestation period is less than four months), produce large litters, and are sexually mature by six months old. And while it may not seem likely, their organs are eerily similar to human organs.

On the other hand, pigs and humans don’t have the same kind of immune system. Pig cells carry what are known as porcine endogenous retroviruses, which can cause infections in humans. Moreover, scientists still have to find a way to convince the human body not to reject organ transplants from a pig. There have, however, been advances in the field to suggest that we are getting close.

For quite some time now, small sections of pigs’ body parts have been used in human surgery: for example, pig heart valves have replaced human valves, and pig corneas have been used in human eye surgery. And now we have gene-editing technology that might make it possible to edit the genes in pig organs to get rid of the problematic viruses and allow scientists to create organs for humans using genetic material from pig organs.

Meanwhile, few Canadians are registered as organ donors and the need is great. Find out how to become a donor in your province or territory here.


Photo: iStock/allanswart.