Meet the pigs that could solve the human organ transplant crisis

November 2, 2019

The facility lies midway between Munich’s city center and its international airport, roughly 23 miles to the north. From the outside, it still looks like the state-run farm it once was, but peer through the windows of the old farmhouse and you’ll see rooms stuffed with cutting-edge laboratory equipment.

 

In a newer building at the back of the farm, Barbara Kessler pulls off her sneakers and sprays her bare feet and hands with antiseptic. The wiry veterinarian steps over a taped line in the shower room, leaving behind everything she can from the outside world: clothes, watch, earrings. She scrubs her body and hair—a buzz cut, so it’s easier to manage these frequent washings.

 

After the shower, she finds her size among the neat stacks of supplied clothes and pulls on a pair of black pants, a red shirt, and black Crocs. Outside the dressing room, she adds a black knit cap to keep even her short-cropped hair from passing on germs, and then strides down the hall to the boot room, where she carefully steps into knee-high rubber boots that are power-washed after each wearing.

 

All these precautions are to protect animals not known for their cleanliness: pigs. And once Kessler opens the door to the indoor pens, the smell is unmistakable. It’s a pigsty, after all.

 

When Kessler unlocks one pen to show off its resident, a young sow wanders out and starts exploring. Like other pigs here, the sow is left nameless, so her caregivers won’t get too attached. She has to be coaxed back behind a metal gate. To the untrained eye, she acts and looks like pretty much any other pig, but smaller.

 

It’s what’s inside this animal that matters. Her body has been made a little less pig-like, with four genetic modifications that make her organs more likely to be accepted when transplanted into a human. If all goes according to plan, the heart busily pumping inside a pig like this might one day beat instead inside a person.

 

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