The US leads the world in organ transplants and even there supply is so short of demand that everyday people die on the waiting lists. The problem is much more acute in India, where in pre-pandemic 2019 deceased donors were only 0.52 per million inhabitants as compared to 6.86 globally and 36.07 in the US. This is why the groundbreaking procedure in the US in which a 57-year-old man too ill to be considered for a human heart received one from a genetically modified pig on Friday, is being looked at as the key to a future in which no person on transplant lists dies unmatched.
Pigs’ organs have been known to be a promising match for humans for decades. Indeed transplantation of a pig’s heart and lungs into a patient was seen in Guwahati as far back as 1997. But as that was an unauthorised operation, doctors involved were arrested, which seems to have been the end of that story here. In the US, both public and private funds have kept feeding the research, resulting in critical scientific progress in gene editing, which has helped lift the odds of a human body accepting a pig heart, and on whose basis FDA provided emergency authorisation to the current operation.
Unfortunately, science is still a ways from putting the transfer of living organs from other species within every patient’s reach. For now the only available approach for India is to dramatically scale up cadaveric donations and the infrastructure for their successful administration. Indians don’t lag the world at all in living kidney and liver donations, which are commonly directed to someone known to the donor. But a lot of consciousness-raising remains to be done on why death in one’s family should mean giving life to someone else’s.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.
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