There are currently more than 100,000 people across the country waiting to receive a transplantable organ. Miromatrix Inc., a biotechnology company based in Eden Prairie, hopes to reduce that number with the help of an unlikely donor: pigs.

Using research pioneered at the University of Minnesota, Miromatrix CEO, Dr. Jeff Ross, and his team are developing a process to convert pig livers, kidneys, hearts and pancreases into fully-functioning human organs. The company hopes to test the transplants on pigs within the next two years, and begin human trials by 2020.

Dr. Jeff Ross displays a decellularized pig liver in Miromatrix’s lab. (Photos by Maddy Kennedy)

Pork to the Rescue
Viable, transplantable human organs have always been in short supply. And it’s no secret that humans don’t always treat them with care. Substance abuse, along with general wear and tear, can lead to healthy organs becoming damaged, and therefore unusable for transplant.

Pigs have a similar biological makeup, but are less likely to suffer everyday organ damage. These pig parts are typically considered byproducts of regular slaughter, and are easier to acquire and less costly than human organs.

Through “decellularization” and “recellularization,” the pig organs are stripped of their cells and replaced with human ones, while keeping the main structure, called a matrix, intact.

“The whole process is a bit like remodeling a house,” Ross explained.

Like many remodels, it starts with a powerwash. During decellularization, the organ is placed in a chemical bath and pumped with a mild detergent, similar to one found in most shampoos. Over the next 48 hours, the once-pink organ is stripped of its pig cells, turning it ghostly white.

Next, the organ gets something akin to a paint job. Through recellularization, new cells are introduced into the existing vascular pathways. The organs are then given time to grow and mature in the lab.

The Heart of the Problem
The modified organs could have a huge impact on a staggering number of people. According to the Organ Procurement Transplantation Network, more than 115,000 people are currently in need of a transplant. Of those, about 65 percent are on an “active” waiting list, meaning they’ve been approved to receive an organ and are waiting for one to become available.

“We hope to end the cycle of dialysis and transplants, and allow people to live their lives,” Ross said.

A pig kidney going through recellularization.

Miromatrix already has two pig-based products on the market: Miroderm and Miromesh. Both are liver-based and assist with serious wounds and reconstructive surgery. Miroderm and Miromesh have been on the market now for two and three years respectively, and according to Ross, neither product has caused adverse effects for recipients.

Ross said that Miromatrix is focusing its efforts primarily on livers and kidneys, but has also started working on hearts and pancreases. Overall, Ross said, he hopes to show how research and development can help millions of people.

“We thought, there has to be a better answer,” Ross said. “And there is. It’s something nature already gave us.”