Big Breakthrough Could Mean Pig Organs in Humans

Scientists who've created genetically modified piglets say perhaps in 2 years
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 11, 2017 9:34 AM CDT
Big Breakthrough Could Mean Pig Organs in Humans
Pigs look out of their enclosure on an ecological farm in Lanke, Germany, on July 10, 2017.   (Maurizio Gambarini/dpa via AP)

Pig organs have long been eyed as transplant options for humans, as the organs are about the same size and pigs are plentiful, but it's been challenging to overcome the human immune system's possible rejection of such organs. Now, in what one medical expert tells the New York Times could be a "real game changer," researchers from eGenesis, a spinoff of Harvard University, have scrubbed dozens of viruses from pig DNA to create genetically modified piglets that may one day serve as organ donors for humans. The BBC reports on the study in the journal Science, noting this "exciting and promising first step" toward xenotransplantation, in which organs are transplanted between different species. "We know we have an audacious vision of a world with no shortage of organs … but that is also our motivation," says study co-author Luhan Yang.

The researchers isolated 25 porcine endogenous retroviruses, or "pervs," in pig DNA that could potentially infect humans, then used a gene-editing program called CRISPR to eliminate those viruses. They next implanted that genetic material into pig eggs, and 37 piglets were born. "These are the first perv-free pigs," Yang says. Study co-author George Church says the first pig-to-human transplants could take place within two years, though issues remain. The Times documents those, including other problems that lead to organ rejection, ethical concerns (including animal welfare), and religious objections. Still, a gene-editing expert not affiliated with the study notes about 22 people a day die awaiting a transplant and "if you could help them with a pig organ, wouldn't that be wonderful?" (Scientists have been working on the pig-human problem for a while.)

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