Jumping Genes Inactivated with CRISPR in Pigs

Illustration by James Bareham  The Verge

A scientific advance using genetically edited piglets could lower the fatality rate and make using pig organs, similar to our own, a common practice.

Next, the company may have to make some more tweaks to make sure our immune systems don't reject the pig organs and ultimately test out how safe and effective these organs are in humans.

There were 33,600 organ transplants past 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.

More than 117,000 Americans are now on a transplant wait-list and 22 people die every day awaiting a match, according to federal figures.

A main concern with pig-to-human organ transplantation is not only immunological compatibility, but also the risk of cross-species transmission of porcine endogenous retroviruses, or PERVs. That was the first step Egenesis took back in 2015 when it inactivated 62 virus genes in pig embryos. Alternatively, human cells populating the germline of an animal could enable human genes to pass onto offspring. Emerging technologies, like the CRISPR-Cas9 system of gene editing fame, are getting researchers closer to rejection free transplants.

"In parallel with getting rid of the viruses, we have been making the pig organs so that they will not be rejected by the human recipient", Church told Fox News. "I think that such innovation is required to tackle as challenging a problem as xenotransplantation". Research has shown PERVs can cause leukemia or other cancers in humans. But Church and his colleagues ended up with 15 living piglets, the oldest now 4 months old.

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.

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And the viruses could then be transmitted from infected human cells to other healthy human cells.

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.

They successfully transplanted hearts and kidneys from those pigs into monkeys and baboons.

Next, the company needs to make sure it can consistently replicate virus-free pigs, which it's already well on its way to doing.

But, Cooper noted, the few thousand pigs grown for their organs would be a small fraction of the 100 million pigs a year that are killed for food in the United States.

Many patients may prefer a human organ, Cooper acknowledged, but that is not always possible.

Every day, about 22 people die because they don't get the replacement organs they desperately need. As a result, Church had wondered if they play an essential role in the pig's survival and whether the animals could develop properly without them.