Health Care

USA scientists closer to pig-to-human organ transplants

USA scientists closer to pig-to-human organ transplants

There is a drastic shortage of organs available for transplants around the world.

In the U.S. alone, more than 116,000 people are waiting to receive a lifesaving organ transplant, while only 17,157 transplants have been performed this year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Scientists have harnessed gene-editing technology to eliminate viruses in pigs that could be harmful to people, potentially laying the foundations for pig-to-human organ transplants.

There are several medical procedures using pig tissues, such as heart valves in cardiac surgery, which have been used safely in man for many years. "Our study highlights the real concern and the significance of addressing this issue", study co-author Luhan Yang, the co-founder of biotech company eGenesis, tells The Verge. "We are pushing the envelope of technology day by day". "I think the risk to society is very low".

"We got perfectly healthy piglets", Church tells The Verge, "so that's wonderful". CRISPR can be toxic to cells because it causes breaks in DNA strands, which can lead cells to self-destruct. In conjunction with a method to inhibit primary cell death during multiplex genome editing, researchers successfully produced viable PERV-free porcine embryos via somatic cell nuclear transfer, using engineered primary cells. Church says it was a "pleasant surprise" to discover that the edited piglets didn't get re-infected when growing inside a PERVs-infected mother.

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Doctors and scientists have been searching for the holy grail of organ replacement-a way to grow usable organs outside the human body-for decades. And burn patients sometimes get grafts made of pig skin. Church says his lab is already doing work on that, and expects to publish a paper on it soon.

A team of researchers in Cambridge, Massachusetts, have hit a breakthrough in their quest to develop pigs whose organs and other tissues can be transplanted into humans.

"This is a major milestone", Church added.

Tests demonstrated that pig cells could infect human cells with the virus in the laboratory. Those cells proved more fragile when subjected to CRISPR's hack job: Once edited, they failed to grow normally, possibly because the damage to their DNA prompted them to stop dividing or self-destruct, Yang says. If this happened, it may cause diseases like cancer. As the New York Times reports, researchers have wanted to explore using pigs as organ sources in the past, but plans were thwarted by the fear that viruses from the pigs, called retroviruses, could infect humans through the transplants. Tector says his own team stopped worrying about the viruses years ago, because it is not clear whether the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will require the viruses to be removed prior to transplantation.

In their study, the team designed a CRISi PR-Cas9 construct that would shut down the parts of the pig genomes responsible for PERVs.