Published: Fri, August 11, 2017
Medicine | By Earnest Bishop

What Gene-Altering for Pigs and Ants Might Mean for Humans

What Gene-Altering for Pigs and Ants Might Mean for Humans

The elimination of these viruses could make pig organs safer for human use.

According to Dr. David Klassen, Chief Medical Officer at the United Network for Organ Sharing, previous year saw 33,600 organ transplants, with another 116,800 people listed on various lists waiting for sutiable organs.

The world has a big organ shortage problem: nearly 120,000 people are now waiting for a transplant in the USA, and more than 20 people die each day waiting for a new organ.

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Gene editing has been generating plenty of buzz recently. But the work is novel and its course unpredictable, Klassen noted.

In 2015, Church and other scientists involved in today's research showed that they could eliminate all 62 copies of a PERV gene in pig cells using CRISPR. These PERVs have the potential to infect humans if a pig organ is transplanted into a person, possibly causing tumors or leukemia.

Pig heart valves are already used in humans, but dead tissue doesn't carry the same HIV transmission risk, according to Scientific American. The idea of using pigs as organ factories has tantalized investigators for decades.

He added: "Successful transplantation of tissues and organs from animals to man, known as xenotransplantation, has been one of the goals of modern medicine for the last 20 years".

In the 1990s, scientists began pursuing the idea in earnest. However, pigs also have many viruses embedded in their DNA, passed down the generations in sperm and eggs. Once infected, the human cells were able to infect other human cells. Researchers now face the task of removing the genetic material in pigs that may "provoke the human immune system" or create "toxic interactions with human blood". For example, the person's immune system can reject the animal organ, leading to death. And burn patients sometimes get grafts made of pig skin. Burn patients sometimes receive skin grafts of pig skin, which is eventually rejected by the body but was never meant to be permanent. "I think that such innovation is required to tackle as challenging a problem as xenotransplantation".

Church and his colleagues thought the retrovirus question could be resolved with Crispr, the new gene-editing technology.

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Researchers in the U.S. used the precision gene editing tool Crispr-Cas9 combined with gene fix technology to deactivate 100% of Pervs in a line of pig cells. Then the scientists cloned the edited cells.

From here, the researchers produced PERV-inactivated embryos and implanted them into sows.

In it, the scientists show how they were able to generate 37 designer pigs without active porcine endogenous retroviruses (PERVs) that can be transmitted to humans and are potentially deadly.

Numerous porcine embryos and fetuses cloned in the CRISPR experiments died before birth or shortly after, but scientists ended up with 15 living female piglets, the oldest now 4 months old. None have the retroviruses.

Through their private company called eGenesis, Harvard researchers, together with Chinese and Danish collaborators, have created genetically engineered piglets that are free of viruses that might harm humans. That's because there's another major problem with xenotransplantation that this paper doesn't address: the danger of organ rejection. "The real breakthrough will be when people are moving around for years with pig organs, only then will we really know that it's safe and effective". Recent gene editing advances, however, are rejuvenating interest in pig-to-human transplants.

To some, the idea of growing pigs to be organ factories is distasteful, if not unethical.

Many patients may prefer a human organ, Cooper acknowledged, but that is not always possible.

Many people with failing hearts, livers and kidneys are saved by donated organs from people who have died (or even some who are still living, in the case of kidneys), but there are not enough to go round.

From those cells you can clone pigs that grow up, at which point you can take the organs from them.

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