Why this pig’s heart could save your life

A small, windowless room within a nondescript laboratory complex just north of Munich. I am gazing at what may turn out to be the future of transplant medicine. And standing on hind legs, propped up against a knee-high metal fence, what may turn out to be the future of transplant medicine is gazing right back. I think it wants to eat my shoes.

Why this pig’s heart could save your life

‘It’ is, in fact, a she, with large almond eyes, enviable lashes, a quivering snout and a polka-dot complexion. Around her, siblings and friends mingle. I pat her hairy head for a moment, then notice a name tag hanging from her ear: ‘12428,’ it reads. Probably for the best. ‘Susan’ might have made her destiny harder to stomach.

She and her comrades are three month-old Auckland Island piglets, and it is not far beyond the realms of science or possibility to say that 12428, or more likely a pig not dissimilar to her, might one day save your life. Cloned from embryos shipped from New Zealand, she is one of about 350 kept here, at the Center for Innovative Medicine Models, part of the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich (LMU), so scientists can look into ‘the generation, characterisation and implementation of large animal models in biological and biomedical research’.

The lab’s 40-odd staff use animals to look into everything from genetic diseases to reproduction, but a chief concern is xenotransplantation: moving living cells, tissues or organs from one species to another – usually humans. In this developing scientific field, leading the pack is the prospect of genetically modified (GM) pigs looking like 12428 being cut open, their hearts (or possibly kidneys, lungs and livers) removed and carefully but hastily given to a desperately ill human.

It is difficult to fathom, watching the piglets play in their pen, but the science is more than encouraging. Currently, about 6,000 people await an organ transplant in the UK, including hundreds needing hearts – the latter a number the NHS says has increased by 85 per cent in the past decade. In the US, the figures are much higher: about 106,000 people are waiting for a transplant, and roughly 17 people die each day before a suitable organ can be found. These pigs may soon be the answer.