CRISPR'd pigs offer hope for the human organ transplant shortage

Three piglets huddled together

Growing whole organs in petri dishes is still decades away, so for now our best bet might be pigs.

Researchers from biotech company eGenesis used the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology to produce pigs lacking active Porcine Endogenous Retrovirus (PERV). In the future, the team might be able to grow human-like or even personalized organs in pigs before transplanting them into humans so anti-rejection drugs aren't needed at all.

Muhammad Mohiuddin, a professor of surgery and director of the xenotransplantation program at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, who was not involved in the study, says cutting multiple genes at once with CRISPR saves a lot of time over conventional genetic engineering.

"This is the first publication to report on PERV-free pig production", said Luhan Yang, co-founder and chief scientific officer at eGenesis, in a statement. But in 1998, Fishman and his colleagues discovered that hidden in pig DNA were genes for viruses that resembled those causing leukemia in monkeys.

Pig organs are similar in size and function to our own, and people are less squeamish about harvesting body parts from an animal raised for meat than they would be about a primate's.Yet one major hurdle that has continued to vex any such cross-species transplants, or xenotransplants, has been the threat of transmitting viruses that can infect people and pigs alike: The latter's genome includes 25 so-called retroviruses that apparently do nothing to porkers but might transmit diseases to people-especially immune-compromised transplant patients.

They then implanted these into surrogate mother sows, which went on to give birth to pig clones - the first to be free of PERVs.

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"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", Fishman said. For example, the person's immune system can reject the animal organ, leading to death. To make PERV-free pigs, they needed to start with genetically normal cells straight from a living pig.

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.

This study examined the risk of PERV infectivity and demonstrated in vitro that PERVs infected human cells and were transmitted to human cells that had no history of contact with porcine cells, substantiating the need to address this issue in order to ensure safe xenotransplantation practice.

However, there's no way those pig organs could actually be transplanted just yet, Ross says.

Gene editing technology has been making waves for the past year for its revolutionary medical promise. United Therapeutics is also going after xenotransplantation, while others are taking a different approach of trying to grow human organs in pigs.

"About 22 people a day die waiting for a transplant", he said.

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