In the field of transplantation, the increasing deficit of human donors have lead to an interest in animals as an alternative source of organs and tissues.
Different in vitro systems and rodent models of xenotransplantation were used to examine the most significant barriers that have to be overcome, before isolated islets of Langerhans from pigs can be used as a cure for insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus in humans.
In clinical transplantation, islets are infused into the liver through the portal vein. During this procedure the islets are susceptible to harmful innate reactions triggered in blood. Adenoviral vectors generating transgenic expression of human complement regulatory proteins were evaluated in pig islets and shown to confer protection against acute complement-mediated damage.
Transplanted islets escaping this immediate destruction will be targets of a cellular immune response. Using a new mouse model of islet xenograft rejection, it was demonstrated that macrophages, effector cells in the rejection, were part of an MHC-restricted xenospecific immune response mediated by T cells. In a strain of knockout mice it was further shown that this process can proceed in the absence of an important signalling system, mediated by Toll-like receptors, between cells in innate and adaptive immunity. These findings illustrate some of the mechanistic differences compared to cellular islet allograft rejection which partly explain why immunosuppressive drugs used in clinical allotransplantation is not sufficient for preventing xenograft rejection.
Porcine endogenous retroviruses (PERV) remain a safety concern in xenotransplantation. Characterization of PERV in pig islets indicated that virus expression is low in vitro but increases during the immediate time period following transplantation. This suggests that antiviral therapies administered at the time of transplantation could be used for preventing the risk of PERV transmission after xenotransplantation.