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pig in a  bucket with black background

Surgeons at the University of Pennsylvania announced today that they successfully attached a genetically altered pig liver to a brain-dead person and found that the organ functioned normally for 72 hours. The experiment represents a step toward using pig organs to help extremely ill patients with failing livers.

The researchers behind the experiment think pig livers could be used to stabilize patients who need a liver transplant and are waiting for a donor. For patients whose own livers could recover, pig organs could also offer temporary support. “If you can provide some kind of way to increase the chance of recovery, maybe you can avoid transplantation,” says Abraham Shaked, a surgeon at the University of Pennsylvania Transplant Institute, who oversaw the study.

As the largest organ in the body, the liver carries out many vital functions. It makes bile, which is needed to digest food. It converts toxic ammonia into a substance that’s flushed out of the body in urine. It also regulates blood clotting, keeps blood sugar in check, removes waste, and helps fight infection.

But sometimes, the liver...