March 18, 2018

Scientists announce huge leap toward pig-to-human transplants

11 August 2017, 01:41 | Winifred Adams

One day these little piggies could give you more than just bacon Luhan Yang Egenesis

Three piglets huddled together

In one study, scientists created piglets that no longer have active genes for a pig virus, a key step in making their organs suitable for transplant in humans. "Even if organs from these gene-edited pigs could be safely used to overcome virus transmission, there remain formidable obstacles in overcoming immunological rejection and physiological incompatibility of pig organs in humans".

According to Dr. David Klassen, Chief Medical Officer at the United Network for Organ Sharing, past year saw 33,600 organ transplants, with another 116,800 people listed on various lists waiting for sutiable organs. More than 117,000 Americans are now on a transplant wait-list in the USA, according to federal figures, and 22 people die every day awaiting a match.

Although several medical procedures already use sterilized pig tissues, such as heart valves in cardiac surgery and corneal transplants, doctors believe that the use of pig organs such as kidneys could end the donor shortage.

But George Church of MIT's Broad Institute and Harvard, Dong Niu of Zhejiang University and their colleagues demonstrated a new method for deactivating the retroviruses in a pig cell line as a way to eliminate the transfer of PERVs to human cells.

"The problem is that all pig cells carry cancer viruses embedded in their DNA". Once infected, the human cells were able to infect other human cells. Researchers in the study used the gene-editing technology to effectively cut out a porcine endogenous retrovirus (PERV) commonly found throughout pig bodies. "I think that such innovation is required to tackle as challenging a problem as xenotransplantation". It is an issue that emerged in the early 1980s when surgeons put a pig heart into a baboon.

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Scientists have genetically modified pigs to remove potentially risky viruses from their DNA, which could have been passed to humans. The viruses the researchers targeted, which dwell in pig DNA and can be passed down during transplantation and infect human cells, have been another concern.

Church founded a company, eGenesis, in hopes of selling the genetically altered pig organs.

Scientists have been introducing human cells into animals to create models of diseases for decades, yet the 2009 policy suspended funding for chimera-based research due to ethical concerns. Recent gene editing advances, however, are rejuvenating interest in pig-to-human transplants. So far, the resulting animals are healthy and virus-free.

But, Cooper noted, the few thousand pigs grown for their organs would be a small fraction of the 100 million pigs a year that are killed for food in the United States.

More than 1,000 people die in Britain each year waiting for a transplant. Now they have taken the genetic material from such cells and, using a similar technique to the one used to clone Dolly the sheep, inserted it into pig eggs.

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