Pig-to-human organ transplants closer, thanks to gene editing

Illustration by James Bareham  The Verge

In an effort to make pig organs safer for humans, scientists have successfully edited the animal's genome to deactivate viruses that could be harmful to people.

There is a massive shortage of transplant organs worldwide, and scientists are desperate to come up with a solution - whether that be boosting patient's immune systems to let them accept otherwise incompatible organs, or creating technology for preserving organs after they are harvested.

Biotech start-up eGeneisis, one of the leaders of the study, said in a statement: "This research represents an important advance in addressing safety concerns about cross species viral transmission". Work would continue, he said, to ensure "safe and effective" organ transplants.

Humans can already receive pig heart valves and pancreases, but scientists have long sought to make their entire organs, which grow to around human size, available for harvest.

Ultimately, these genetically altered pigs could be raised specifically for the harvesting of organs for transplant.

There were 33,600 organ transplants previous year, and 116,800 patients on waiting lists, according to Klassen, who was not involved in the new study. The organs are almost the same size and function similarly enough to human organs that scientists think it could work.

The team at Massachusetts-based eGenesis, working with scientists in China, used the Dolly recipe to clone pigs.

Study author George Church, a geneticist at Harvard and founder of eGenesis, told the Times he thinks that pig-to-human transplants could happen within two years. These are known as endogenous retroviruses which, although normally silent, can be activated to become fully infectious for human cells when pig cells carrying these retroviruses are co-incubated with human cells.

"There's a big gap between organ supply and organ demand", he said.

Taking pig cells, the team edited them to target and hinder the virus-related DNA, they then cloned those cells and developed an embryo.

"The viruses are particularly troubling", said Prof Church.

However, they have admitted that there are still huge issues ahead in the research as it is not yet known how to stop humans from rejecting pig organs. At the time of writing, 117,000 people in the United States are on a waiting list for an organ, with 22 people dying each day waiting for a transplant.

Today, 15 are still alive with ages ranging from one to four months. Using CRISPR-Cas9, we inactivated all the PERVs in a porcine primary cell line and generated PERV-inactivated pigs via somatic cell nuclear transfer.

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.

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