Your future organ donor might be a pig, study suggests


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. And even with PERVs off the table, pigs will require other modifications so that their organs won't be rejected by the human immune system or cause other harms.

There were 33,600 organ transplants previous year, and 116,800 patients on waiting lists, according to Dr. David Klassen, chief medical officer at the United Network for Organ Sharing, a private, nonprofit organization that manages the nation's transplant system.

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. "We don't know that if we transplant pig organs with the viruses that they will transmit infections, and we don't know that the infections are risky", he tells the Times. Two early developers of that gene-editing technology, Harvard University geneticists George Church and Luhan Yang, suspected that CRISPR's highly efficient duo of guide RNA and a DNA-slicing enzyme could make precise, genome-wide changes to pig cells. "But the use of animal organs such as pig kidneys and hearts is not without serious ethical and biosecurity concerns".

"The problem is that all pig cells carry cancer viruses embedded in their DNA". Alternatively, human cells populating the germline of an animal could enable human genes to pass onto offspring.

Using the gene-editing tool CRISPR, Yang and her team were able to disable 25 copies of these viruses in pig embryos. "I think that such innovation is required to tackle as challenging a problem as xenotransplantation".

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To produce piglets, the researchers then used a standard cloning technique: They inserted the DNA-containing nuclei of these edited cells into egg cells taken from the ovaries of pigs at a Chinese slaughterhouse.

Fears that pig organs would infect humans with freakish retroviruses brought the research to a halt.

"Since xenotransplantation involves long-term intimate cell-to-cell contact the potential for the species jump of retroviruses for the entire life-time of the transplants is a very real one".

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. In 1984, "Baby Fae" famously received a heart transplant from a baboon and died 20 days later. So far, the resulting animals are healthy and virus-free.

An estimated 100 million pigs are killed in the United States each year for food, The New York Times reported. And, he said, the pigs would be anesthetized and killed humanely. Large porcine organs, which will likely require immune-suppressing drugs to keep the patients' bodies from attacking them, might pose a greater risk of PERV transmission.