Nicholas LaRusso
Medical Director, Mayo Clinic Center For Innovation

Transplanting Swine Organs Into Humans: Should We Tamper With Nature?

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While acknowledging risks of cross-species disease, Dr. Nicholas LaRusso envisions genetically modified pig livers wiping out human liver scarcity.

Nicholas LaRusso

Nicholas F. LaRusso, M.D., Charles H. Weinman Endowed Professor of Medicine, is Director of the Center for Innovation at Mayo and a Distinguished Investigator of the Mayo Foundation.


Prior to becoming Center Director in 2008, he was Vice Chair for Research of the Department of Medicine (DOM), Chair of the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, and Chair of the DOM at Mayo Clinic. Before assuming a faculty position at Mayo in 1977, he was a guest investigator at the Rockefeller University in the laboratory of the Noble laureate, Christian de Duve. A member of the American Association of Clinical Investigation and the Association of American Physicians, he is the former editor of GASTROENTEROLOGY and past president of the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases (AASLD). Among other honors, he is a recipient of a MERIT Award and the Principle Investigator on two R01s from the NIH; he also received Distinguished Achievement Awards from both the American Gastroenterological Association (AGA) and the AASLD, and the Distinguished Mentor Award of the AGA. He is currently President of the AGA.


He received his undergraduate degree (magna cum laude) from Boston College, his M.D. degree from New York Medical College, and his training in internal medicine and gastroenterology at Mayo, the latter as an NIH fellow in the laboratory of Alan Hofmann.


Question: What is the future of organ transplantation?


Nicholas LaRusso: One of the great things about the liver is that it regenerates. So, if you cut half of someone’s liver, it grows back. That’s why we can now not only use cadaver livers, but we can use portions of living donors. It’s entirely possible, and there’s work being done in this area, that in the future a liver transplant will be no more than an injection of a number of cells that will implant somewhere in the body and will grow and form an entire new liver. This is the whole area of stem cell transplantation


Then I think the last area, and this is a fairly controversial area, but I think has great potential, and the background here is, that as you maybe aware, there are many people particularly with liver disease, many more people that need livers than we currently have livers for.


There’s a whole area called xenotransplantation in which the idea is that we would take animals, pigs are currently the preferred animal, and be able to modify them genetically in such a way that a human would not only not reject a pig liver, but that any potential diseases that would be unique to animals would not be able to be contracted by a human. This is a big concern right now.


You can envision 20 years from now everyone who needs a liver having access to one because you walk in to a facility, you take out a pig and you use the pig liver for the patient.


Technical advances, leading to minimally increasingly, minimally evasive surgery, new drugs and ultimately sufficient understanding of the immune system that no drugs would be necessary, the use of cells rather than whole organs, and potentially the use of animal organs--are probably the four areas of the future when it comes to solid organ transplantation.


Recorded on: June 24, 2009.