January 24, 2024

How journalism is informing FDA regulations on pig-human organ transplants

In the U.S., more than 103,000 people are on the waiting list for organ transplants. Researchers are looking to xenotransplantation — transplanting other species’ living cells, tissues or organs into humans — as a promising technology to help meet this need and save lives. The procedure earned widespread coverage in 2022 when a team at the University of Maryland School of Medicine transplanted a genetically modified pig heart into a human patient for the first time. 

Harvard University student Simar Bajaj dug deeper. Simar spent six months investigating the science, history and ethics of pig heart transplants, highlighting the less covered contexts and connections — from animal husbandry to the quest for immortality.

Pig Human Transplants and the March to Immortality, the resulting portfolio of work, has helped inform the Food and Drug Administration’s consideration of whether and when to allow clinical trials of pig organ transplants.

This project was honored in the Student Journalism Award, Portfolio category in the 2023 Online Journalism Awards. We caught up with Simar about the motivation behind his work and what it was like to win in the OJAs.

What motivated your extensive investigations into pig heart transplantations?

As a 15-year-old high schooler with no family connections, I cold-emailed 100 local doctors, wanting to do research. Only one cardiothoracic surgeon said yes, and for the past six years, I have been working with him, researching surgical education, myocardial bridge unroofing, and cardiac regeneration. When the news about the Maryland xenotransplant broke, I eagerly read the newspaper and magazine coverage but felt underwhelmed.

First, journalists were largely glossing over the actual process — the pig rearing, genetic manipulation, and the surgery itself—instead tending to oversimplify or sensationalize. Second, this operation was happening amid the COVID-19 pandemic, yet almost nobody drew the connection between these two glaring violations of the human-animal divide. With my background in cardiothoracic surgery and desire to contextualize how humans have been increasingly encroaching on the natural world, I wanted to write the authoritative piece on xenotransplantation.

I wrote the piece for a college creative writing class and then sent it on-spec to an editor at The Guardian. Amazingly, she took a chance on me and published the piece. My pieces in The Washington Post and Slate were extensions of this work, focusing on the history of xenotransplantation and how the genetically modified pigs were raised, respectively.

What insights or breakthroughs did you experience that would be important for other journalists to learn from?

For most people, pig heart transplants feel more science fiction than fact, so the great breakthrough in my Guardian piece was thinking I needed some concrete scenes to anchor the story — one of a traditional human-to-human heart transplant. Interspersing sections about the science, history, and ethics of the pig donors offered a comprehensive overview of the operation, while keeping the story’s structure dynamic and engaging.

What was it like to get the news that the project is a winner in the OJAs?

I was absolutely stunned. I never did journalism with my high school or college paper, only beginning to freelance in Summer 2022 after getting rejected from every journalism internship I applied to. To win the OJA award for some of my first-ever pieces is a high point of my career and validation for continuing to write, making science engaging and accessible for the common person.

Beyond your team’s work, what inspiring journalism project(s) have you come across lately that others should keep an eye on?

STAT News’ Obesity Revolution series is quite inspiring because obesity is one of the biggest science stories of the year, and STAT is rigorously covering the highs and lows, with a plethora of smart pieces.

Learn more

Launched in 2000, the Online Journalism Awards are the only comprehensive set of journalism prizes honoring excellence and innovation in digital journalism around the world. The call for entries for the 2024 awards will be open April 4–May 9.

Explore the 2023 winners and finalists Volunteer with the OJAs