Weird Cross-Species Transplants Part One

As a society, we’ve sort of just decided that animals are here for our benefit. In some ways, this capitalist attitude is harmless, like sheep farmers dotting the pastoral countryside of the UK or alpaca farmers who lovingly sheer their stock for making hats and mittens and things.

In other ways, it’s taken on a dystopian slant; the commercial dairy industry, factory farming, and the appalling working conditions in meat processing plants. Animals-as-product is prevalent throughout our lives, including in medicine. 

Photo by Paz Arando on Unsplash

People now regularly receive heart tissue from pigs and cows. These procedures have been around for so long that we accept them as “normal.” But the history of cross-species transplants didn’t begin with heart tissue, and the misfires and false starts are straight-up bizarre. Here are the ten weirdest cross-species transplants through history. 

16 Chimpanzee Kidneys

Photo by Andrey Tikhonovskiy on Unsplash

Before there were dialysis centers across the country, it’s easy to forget there was a time where kidney failure was much more widespread and devastating. In the early 1960s, Dr. Keith Reemtsma transplanted 13 chimpanzee kidneys into human patients. He was a renowned transplant surgeon who also developed an intra-aortic balloon pump for people awaiting heart transplants and did work on pancreas transplants.

Dr. Reemtsma selected chimpanzee kidneys because they’re approximately the same size as humans, and we share the same blood types. Of the 13 patients with chimpanzee kidneys, most people survived a week to a few months, dying of eventual organ failure or massive infections from the immunosuppressants. 

One woman survived nine months, long enough to return to work. She later died of what’s thought to be an electrolyte imbalance. Chimpanzee kidneys don’t work the same as human kidneys as she was peeing up to five gallons a day. 

A baboon liver in Pittsburgh.

Photo by Max van den Oetelaar on Unsplash

The 35-year-old recipient of the baboon liver was HIV positive, with Hepatitis B and liver cirrhosis. For the six months leading up to the transplant, he was hospitalized almost continuously. After other hospitals denied him a liver transplant, the doctors at the University of Pittsburgh presented the baboon liver idea. 

It’s thought baboons are immune to hepatitis, and the donor-primate share the same blood type as the recipient. Doctors were also trying a new immunosuppressant drug that was still in an experimental phase. 

The patient could walk and eat just five days after the transplant. The liver tripled in size in three weeks. The transplanted organ changed the guy’s body chemistry to be more like a baboon’s. Then at that point, the patient went into renal failure from all the drugs he was taking to stop his body from rejecting the liver and required dialysis. He died just over two months after the transplant. The cause of death was a widespread infection. 

Photo by Nandhu Kumar on Unsplash

Stayed tuned for part two with pieces and parts from more than just primates.