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Medical Minute: Animals Saving Lives: Pigs

In the 1960s, surgeons experimented by transplanting chimpanzee organs into humans in need of an organ transplant. Since then, doctors have continued to look to animals as a source to treat various diseases.

Dick Beyer has Parkinson's. Betsy Ray has diabetes. George Jones has kidney failure. What do these diseases have in common? Some doctors predict pigs will cure them.

"The holy grail of all this is a pig whose organs are not recognized as pig organs but rather are seen essentially to have tissues that our immune system thinks is human tissue," says Dr. Marlon Levy.

Five years ago, Marlon Levy used pig livers to do the job two patients' livers could not.

"The ending of this story is that both of these patients are doing remarkably well today."

That's not enough to reassure activist Alix Fano.

"We know that since the early 1990s about 16 people have died in human xenotransplantation trials. There have been patients in Parkinson's disease trials who have had pig cells injected into their brains who have come down with malignant cancers," says Fano.

But no research has been done to show a link, and scientists are expanding their research. Pig cells are now being studied for strokes, epilepsy and Huntington's disease. And doctors from Mexico recently transplanted pig islet cells into 12 diabetic children. Doctors say one is off insulin and the others reduced their insulin requirement by more than sixty percent.

"We're talking about putting the entire population at risk from a pig virus that could mutate and spread and kill lots of other people."

Biotech companies are working to eliminate that. They're breeding pigs they say do not pass on the Perv virus, the one deemed most dangerous to humans. While it may be too early for species to share organs, researchers continue their work, hoping to give patients a second chance at life.

For more information, contact:

Marlon Levy, M.D.
Transplant Surgeon
Baylor All Saints Medical Center
(817) 922-4650

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