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The first man to receive a kidney transplant from a genetically modified pig has died

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The first living person to receive a kidney from a genetically modified pig has died less than two months after undergoing the procedure. His doctors say the man's death had nothing to do with the transplant and are vowing to continue their research. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein has our story.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: When doctors announced that Rick Slayman had become the first living person in the world to get a genetically modified pig kidney in March, they hailed the operation as historic. David Brown oversees Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, where the operation was performed.

DAVID BROWN: Today we recognize a truly monumental milestone, one we hope is a giant leap forward, advancing transplant surgery to provide viable, readily available organs to patients who so desperately need them.

STEIN: The pig kidney that was transplanted inside the 62-year-old state transportation worker was working great. Slayman went home to Weymouth, Mass., about two weeks later, feeling better than he had in years. But over the weekend, the hospital announced that Slayman had died. I talked with his doctor, Winfried Williams.

WINFRED WILLIAMS: This has been really a quite sad turn of events, and it's been devastating for, of course, his family and for our research team.

STEIN: Williams says he can't disclose the cause of Slayman's death but says it had nothing to do with the transplant. The pig kidney kept doing its job, but Slayman had lots of other health problems.

WILLIAMS: We do not think that the transplant contributed to his unfortunate passing. No, we don't.

STEIN: Williams says doctors learned a lot from Slayman's experience, like how to optimize the pig kidney's function. Doctors hope organs from pigs that have been genetically modified to prevent rejection and other complications will help alleviate the organ shortage. Kidney failure disproportionately affects Black people like Slayman.

WILLIAMS: Mr. Slayman was a true, courageous, brave individual. And I believe strongly that in honor of his courageous effort, this effort will not have been in vain. Others will benefit from his sacrifice. We are now understanding a lot more about the pig kidney physiology in ways that I think will be very helpful moving forward.

STEIN: But some worry about genetically modifying pigs for human transplants, about spreading pig viruses to people, slaughtering animals for their organs, conducting experiments on desperately ill patients like Slayman. Two dying men who got pig hearts in Maryland only survived weeks. A New Jersey woman who got a pig kidney in New York about a month ago from another biotech company is still on the hospital. L. Syd Johnson is a bioethicist at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse.

L SYD JOHNSON: I certainly worry that we might be exploiting these patients. They are people who have run out of better options, and they're desperate. They are potentially facing death. But these are also people who, because of that, are very vulnerable. And these patients have been given an offer they can't refuse.

STEIN: Now, Williams says Slayman fully understood the risks, but Johnson and other bioethicists also wonder how much doctors are really learning by experimenting on individual patients. Michael Gusmano is a bioethicist at Lehigh University.

MICHAEL GUSMANO: You had two completely different pig kidneys produced by two different companies using wildly different approaches to genetic modification. You have people with different levels in terms of their health status.

STEIN: Some think a carefully designed study would be a much better way to evaluate organs from genetically modified pigs. The biotech companies breeding the pigs hope the Food and Drug Administration will approve a formal study soon. Rob Stein, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAT SLATER SONG, "4 LEAF CLOVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.