Microbiological safety of xenotransplantation compared with allotransplantation


  • Jay A. Fishman

    1. Transplant Infectious Disease and Compromised Host Program, MGH Transplant Center Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USA
    Search for more papers by this author


Transmission of viral, bacterial, parasitic, and fungal infections via organ allografts is uncommon but may be associated with life-threatening disease. Internationally, programs for screening of human organ donors for infectious risk are non-uniform and vary with national standards and the availability of screening assays. Further, the failure to recognize and/or to report transmission events limits the utility of available data regarding the incidence of allograft-associated disease transmission. Advances in xenotransplantation biology have allowed some limited clinical trials with the prospect for increased opportunities for clinical xenotransplantation. As with human allotransplantation, the examination of infectious risk has been a central theme in these studies. Significant advances have been made in the breeding and screening of swine for preclinical studies including the identification of novel, potential human pathogens derived from source animals. Thus far, “expected” xenograft-derived pathogens such as porcine cytomegalovirus (PCMV) have become activated in immunosuppressed primates but have not resulted in systemic infection outside the xenograft. PCMV has been bred out of swine herds by early weaning strategies. Conversely, host pathogens such as primate-derived cytomegalovirus (CMV) have become activated and have produced serious infectious complications. These infections are preventable using antiviral prophylaxis. Xenogeneic tissues appear to be relatively resistant to infection by common human pathogens such as HIV, HTLV and the hepatitis viruses.

Concerns regarding the potential activation of latent porcine retroviruses from xenograft tissues have resulted in the development of novel assays for xenotropic porcine endogenous retrovirus (PERV). PERV transmission to primate xenograft recipients or to human cells in in vivo models has not been detected. Multiple intrinsic cellular mechanisms appear to be active in the prevention of infection of human cells by PERV. Further, PERV appears to be susceptible to available antiretroviral agents. Thus, while the absolute risk for such infections remains unknown in the absence of human studies with prolonged graft survival in immunosuppressed xenograft recipients, the risk of transmission to human recipients appears limited. Some general principles have been developed to guide clinical trials:

Outcomes of xenotransplantation trials, including any infectious disease transmissions, should be reported in the scientific literature and to appropriate public health authorities.

Surveillance programs should be developed to detect known infectious agents as well as previously unknown or unexpected pathogens in the absence of recognizable clinical syndromes.

Standardization of procedures and validation by expert and/or reference laboratories are needed for microbiological assays. Such validation may require international collaboration.

Repositories of samples from source animals and from recipients prior to, and following xenograft transplantation are essential to the investigation of possible infectious disease events.

Infection is common in allograft recipients. Thus, in advance of clinical trials, policies and procedures should be developed to guide the evaluation of any infectious syndromes that may develop. (e.g. fever of unknown origin [FUO], leukocytosis, leukopenia, graft dysfunction, pneumonia, hepatitis, abscess formation) in xenograft recipients. Based on preclinical experience these procedures will include: (i) Exclusion of infectious syndromes commonly associated with allotransplantation (e.g. CMV, bacterial pneumonia); (ii) Evaluation of PERV infection by serologic and NAT testing; (iii) Assessment of other recipients of xenografts derived from the same herd or source of swine; and (iv) Evaluation of social contacts of the recipient. Consideration of investigation of xenograft recipients for unknown pathogens may require application of advanced research technologies, possibly including use of broad-range molecular probes, microarrays or high throughput pyrosequencing.

References:  1. Meije Y, njes RR, Fishman JA. Retroviral restriction factors and infectious risk in xenotransplantation. Amer J Transplant 2010; 10: 1511–1516.

2. Fishman JA, Scobie L, Takeuchi Y. Xenotransplantation-associated infectious risk: A WHO consultation. Xenotransplantation 2012; 19: 72–81.