First Person to Receive Transplanted Pig Kidney has Died

by Bernice Lottering
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Rick Slayman, holding hands with his partner, Faren, poses with members of his Massachusetts General Hospital medical team before being discharged in March, 2024. Image Credit: Michelle Rose, Massachusetts General Hospital.

A man who suffered from end-stage renal disease and made history earlier this year by undergoing the first-ever human kidney transplant from a genetically modified pig has passed away nearly two months after the procedure, as confirmed by Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

A First-Ever in the Field of Xenotransplantation

Earlier this year, Rick Slayman made history as the first person to receive a kidney transplant from a genetically modified pig. His procedure marked a significant advancement in the field of xenotransplantation, where organs or tissues from animals are transplanted into humans. This breakthrough procedure offered hope to patients like Slayman, who had struggled with kidney failure for years. 

Slayman, aged 62 and from Weymouth, Massachusetts, underwent the transplant surgery in March, a procedure described by the hospital at the time as “a major milestone in the quest to provide more readily available organs to patients,” with surgeons expressing confidence that the pig kidney would provide lasting benefit for at least two years. Slayman had previously received a human kidney transplant at the same hospital in 2018 after seven years on dialysis. However, the organ failed after five years, leading him to resume dialysis treatments. 

 “Our family is deeply saddened about the sudden passing of our beloved Rick but take great comfort knowing he inspired so many,” his family expressed, reflecting on his monumental journey.

Uncertainty in Pig Kidney Transplant’s Role in Patient’s Death

The hospital did not disclose the circumstances or timing of Slayman’s passing. A spokesperson refrained from elaborating, citing “privacy issues.” Massachusetts General Hospital stated that they could not confirm that the death of Mr Slayman was as a direct result of the xenotransplant procedure.

“The Mass General transplant team expresses profound sorrow at Mr. Rick Slayman’s unexpected passing,” stated the hospital in a Saturday release. “We have no indication that [Slayman’s death] was the result of his recent transplant.”

According to the hospital, the kidney was sourced from eGenesis, a company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The pig donor had undergone genetic editing to eliminate genes harmful to human recipients and incorporate specific human genes to improve compatibility. Additionally, eGenesis had deactivated pig-inherent viruses known to pose a risk of infection to humans. Notably, kidneys from genetically edited pigs raised by eGenesis had previously been transplanted into monkeys. Researchers reported in October, in the journal Nature, that these transplants had resulted in the monkeys’ survival for an average of 176 days, with one case exceeding two years.

On March 16, 2024, at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, Melissa Mattola-Kiatos, RN, a nursing practice specialist, unboxes the pig kidney in preparation for transplantation.
On March 16, 2024, at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, Melissa Mattola-Kiatos, RN, a nursing practice specialist, unboxes the pig kidney in preparation for transplantation.

Past Insights and Future Prospects: Genetic Animal Organ Transplants in Human Medicine

Slayman’s successful transplant underscored the progress made in xenotransplantation research in recent years. While his case brought optimism, challenges persisted in ensuring the long-term viability of pig organs in human recipients. Recent efforts, such as the transplantation of pig kidneys into brain-dead individuals and the development of gene-edited organs, have shown promise but also highlighted the complexities involved in overcoming immunological barriers and ensuring organ functionality. Despite setbacks, researchers remain committed to advancing the field, driven by the potential to alleviate the growing demand for organ transplants worldwide.

The hospital stated that drugs utilized to mitigate rejection of the pig organ by the patient’s immune system featured an experimental antibody known as tegoprubart, which was developed by Eledon Pharmaceuticals (ELDN.O). According to a data tracker maintained by the United Network for Organ Sharing, over 100,000 individuals in the U.S. are currently awaiting organ transplants, with kidneys being the most sought-after. Previous procedures conducted by NYU surgeons involved the transplantation of pig kidneys into brain-dead individuals, and whilst successful, both patients died within months. In January 2022, a team from the University of Maryland conducted a transplant, where a genetically modified pig heart was implanted into a 57-year-old man suffering from terminal heart disease. Unfortunately, the patient passed away two months following the procedure.

Despite Rick Slayman’s passing, his family and medical team are grateful to have been part of his inspiring journey. His courage remains a source of inspiration for patients and healthcare professionals, highlighting the importance of ongoing research in organ transplantation. Massachusetts General Hospital acknowledged Slayman’s impact, “Mr. Slayman will forever be seen as a beacon of hope to countless transplant patients worldwide.” Slayman’s story, from kidney failure due to diabetes and hypertension to undergoing groundbreaking xenotransplantation, showcases the intersection of medical innovation and human resilience. His legacy serves as a reminder of the transformative power of scientific exploration and human compassion, offering solace to those in need of hope and healing.

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