I’m standing on the rooftop of NYU Langone Health, a hospital in midtown Manhattan, scanning the sky over the East River for a helicopter.
It’s New York City, so there are tons of helicopters, but I’m looking for a specific one.
Finally I spot it: a white helicopter with red-and-white blades, carrying some very precious cargo.
The blades whir to a halt, and some people step out.
One man is carrying a big white box. Inside the box? A pig kidney.
This is Science, Quickly. I’m Tanya Lewis.
I run back into the hospital to watch the small team arrive through the elevator doors wheeling the box with the kidney on ice.
I follow them right up to the operating floor.
And that’s as far as I can go. Only surgeons and nurses and a handful of observers are allowed in the operating room.
There’s a risk of the pig organ carrying a virus that could infect people.
And they are scrubbed in with personal protective equipment on.
The surgical staff also had to undergo special blood testing before and after the surgery to ensure they stay infection free.
So I make my way back to a small room with a live video feed of the operation.
I’m here to watch an organ transplant. But not just any transplant: a pig kidney is being transplanted into a human. This is known as a xenotransplant.
The human recipient is not alive—he suffered brain death as a result of a complication from a cancerous brain tumor.
The body of the decedent, as researchers refer to him, is being maintained on life support.
He wasn’t able to donate his organs, but his family has generously agreed to donate his body for the experiment.
I watch the live video feed of the surgery.
The surgeon starts prepping the organ to be transplanted.
Once it’s ready, he lowers it into the decedent’s abdominal cavity.
He has removed the decedent’s own kidneys already, so the only kidney function will come from the pig organ.
The surgeon carefully sutures the pig kidney’s blood vessels to the deceased person’s renal artery and vein.
He also connects the ureter—the tube that connects the kidney to the bladder—from the pig organ to the human ureter.
The kidney flushes pink as blood begins to flow through it and starts producing urine.