July 22, 2018

Scientists announce huge leap toward pig-to-human transplants

11 August 2017, 02:24 | Randall Craig

One day these little piggies could give you more than just bacon Luhan Yang Egenesis

Three piglets huddled together

Today scientists in MA announced that by using the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing system they were able to inactivate all 25 viruses in the pig genome, yielding seemingly healthy piglets and moving research one step closer to a future of xenotransplantation. This adds to the growing number of transplants that are already in relatively widespread use in medicine (heart valves, skin grafts for burn patients, etc.).

It's a huge step, as those viruses (more specifically known as porcine endogenous retroviruses, or PERVs) pose a not-yet-fully-understood ― but potentially significant ― health threat to humans. In this latest study, the team brought the research a step further: first, they demonstrated that PERVs in pig cells can be transmitted to human cells in a petri dish, and that infected human cells can then transmit PERVs to other healthy human cells. The first, Yang told Business Insider in March, is the virology, or the fact that pigs carry genes encoded with viruses that could transmit disease to humans - that's the PERV genes that Egenesis is working to deactivate.

The idea of solving the human organ shortage with pigs has tantalized surgeons for decades. "Our animal is probably the most [genetically] modified animal on the Earth", says Luhan Yang, co-founder and chief science officer of eGenesis, the Cambridge, Mass. -based start-up that led the research. The virus, which is part of the pigs' DNA, has been an issue for human-pig transplants in the past because of concerns that it could infect humans.

To produce piglets, the researchers then used a standard cloning technique: They inserted the DNA-containing nuclei of these edited cells into egg cells taken from the ovaries of pigs at a Chinese slaughterhouse.

The scientists grew clone cells of these edited cells but were unable to cultivate one with greater than 90% of the PERVs deleted.

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. Pigs are the biggest animals that have undergone CRISPR, he says, and he wants to see what happens when they are allowed to "grow to a ripe old age" of over 20. The retroviruses don't harm pigs, but would make xenotransplants, cross-species transplants, impossible.

"Since xenotransplantation involves long-term intimate cell-to-cell contact the potential for the species jump of retroviruses for the entire life-time of the transplants is a very real one".

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

"At least for those who are four months old, we did not observe difference in physiology between the modified piglets and normal ones", Yang said.

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