Scientists Hit Breakthrough In Quest To Transplant Pig Organs Into Humans

Illustration by James Bareham  The Verge

The research is an important step forward in the quest to make pig organs safe for transplantation - a dream that has kept scientists busy for decades and has the potential to save thousands of lives. "The real breakthrough will be when people are moving around for years with pig organs, only then will we really know that it's safe and effective".

eGenesis said it has been able to create "dozens of apparently healthy pigs with no trace of PERV genes", by using the CRISPR technique.

"If this is correct, it's a great achievement", says virologist Joachim Denner of the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin who has studied the mysterious PERV sequences.

Whether or not pig retroviruses would truly pose a risk of causing disease in humans remains controversial. Today (August 10), an global team of researchers announced a step toward giving it an entirely different role in medicine: enabling xenotransplantation-in this case, of pig organs into humans. Still, Denner says, "If it is possible to knock [PERVs] out, you should do it".

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It's a long way to go before genetically-engineered pig organs wind up in humans, but this is a good first step and a good sign that CRISPR will be the key to solving this problem.

Aside from contracting rare diseases from pig organs, there is the ever present threat of organ rejection-even when the transplanted organ originated in another human.

Robin Weiss of University College London, who first discovered PERVs, says there are other viruses in the pig genome that could theoretically jump across to people, so although the risk of cancer or other problems has been reduced, it has not been completely eliminated. PERV cells are, according to Science, "remnants of ancient viral infections" from the animals that could harm humans. But those are small numbers of cells within a protective capsule, Denner notes. Burn patients sometimes receive skin grafts of pig skin, which is eventually rejected by the body but was never meant to be permanent. Recent gene editing advances, however, are rejuvenating interest in pig-to-human transplants.

Then CRISPR came along. The pigs, the oldest of which are four months old, will also allow. Luhan Yang, cofounder and chief scientific officer at eGenesis, says her team wanted to deactivate this group of viruses to see if the pigs would develop normally.

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The scientists first mapped the Pervs present in the pig genome, identifying 25 in total.

Piglets cloned from the genetically modified cells were found to be free from all Pervs. In the new work, done with a team of Danish and Chinese collaborators, the eGenesis team applied the CRISPR system to cells derived from the connective tissue of fetal pigs. Once they successfully engineered cells with all of the sites shut down, they used a process known as somatic nuclear transfer to implant the modified DNA in a pig egg, creating an embryo free of PERVs.

An alternative method being developed includes injecting human stem cells into pig embryos, so they grow human organs.

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