It may sound like a disturbing idea plucked straight from a dystopian science fiction novel, but a company is planning to build a factory where genetically modified pigs grow organs for humans in need. The goal is to manufacture more than 100,000 lungs, hearts, and other transplantable organs per year inside genetically modified pigs. “I’m using technology to create an unlimited supply of transplantable organs, and I’m doing it now, with no delay,” Martine Rothblatt said at a DARPA conference in New York this week.
Though it might sound far-fetched, Rothblatt, the mind behind the idea, has a track record of making the far-fetched into highly profitable reality. She is the founder of Sirius XM Radio, an idea which, in 1990 when the company started, was derided by radio industry experts. As the head of United Therapeutics, she led a team which has developed a drug therapy, as an alternative to transplants, that treats pulmonary arterial hypertension. That venture netted more than $1 billion last year.
Using pigs as organ donors is not a new idea – heart valves are routinely transplanted into human patients – but transplanting entire pig organs is a new hurdle. Pig genetic material is not compatible with the human genome, so Rothblatt’s company is currently working on carving away parts of the pig genome from organs, to make them tolerable to the human system.
Rothblatt says that by 2020 the science will be far enough along to attempt a pig-to-human transplant. After that, her company will go full steam ahead on their organ factory, where modified pigs will be allowed to breed to create a steady supply of organs for human use.
“Weird does not mean unethical,” she said. “There’s a 45-degree line on a graph—as long as the utility exceeds the yuckiness, social acceptance wins.”