There have been significant advances in organ xenotransplantation (cross-species transplantation), especially in the development of genetically engineered pigs, but clinical trials of solid organ transplants are still a time away. However, there is a form of pig-to-human xenotransplantation that has been taking place since the 1960s-bioprosthetic heart valve (BHV) replacement. Recently, there has been increasing evidence that, despite glutaraldehyde fixation of BHVs, there is a significant immune reaction to the valves, leading to calcification, rapid structural deterioration, and failure, particularly in young patients who have a more vigorous immune system and metabolism than the elderly. However, it is the young patients who would most benefit from such BHVs because these avoid the complications associated with the lifelong anticoagulation required with mechanical valves. In this review, we examine pathologic and immunohistochemical reports of failed BHVs that suggest that there is an immune response to these valves. Small animal studies that link the development of calcification and BHV failure to the immune response are reviewed. We draw parallels between the problems of glutaraldehyde-fixed tissue xenotransplantation and those currently being faced in live organ xenotransplantation. Finally, we discuss the advances being made in the production of genetically modified pigs and the evidence that these pigs may become a source of BHVs that can be used worldwide to treat valvular heart disease in children and young adults (for whom there is no ideal valve replacement in existence today). The design of a BHV that is resistant to the host's immune response would be a major step forward in cardiac surgery.
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