Researchers are trying to make pig organs more viable for transplant

Three piglets huddled together

Now there are more than 117,000 men, women and children on the donor waiting list in the USA, 22 of whom die each day from lack of a matching donor.

A shortage of human organs creates long waitlists for vital transplants; in the United States, about 22 people needing various organs die every day while they wait. He and his colleagues recently attempted to chop PERV genes out of pig cells with an editing technology called zinc finger nucleases, but the many imprecise DNA cuts proved toxic to cells.

Egenesis, a startup that's using the gene-editing tool CRISPR to make pig organs viable for transplants into people, just became the first company to make pigs that don't transmit a key virus, a move that could get us closer to pig-organ transplants for humans.

Dr Luhan Yang, co-founder and chief scientific officer at the biotech company eGenesis, said: 'This is the first publication to report on virus-free pig production. "I think the risk to society is very low".

The existence of the virus has been a major stumbling block preventing the development of genetically engineered pigs to provide kidneys and other organs for transplant into human patients.

"We got perfectly healthy piglets", Church tells The Verge, "so that's incredible". 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. Church says it was a "pleasant surprise" to discover that the edited piglets didn't get re-infected when growing inside a PERVs-infected mother. Since these kinds of viruses diseases have existed in animals for millions of years, scientists have thought removing them might have other unexpected negative consequences.


The team plans to make pigs that are altered to a greater extent, to make them more immunologically similar to people. They are now repeating the process to engineer male pigs, which Church says he doesn't expect to be any more complicated. This involves immunological changes as well as making the tissues compatible and fixing blood-clotting issues.

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. The concern about PERVs has been hard to dismiss, however, especially because studies have shown that the viruses can infect human cells in a dish.

Researchers developed a strategy to enable efficient and precise genome editing in primary cells using CRISPR-Cas9 technology. There has been some speculation that CRISPR might lead to cancers, but that has not been adequately tested, he says. Scientists still don't know whether the viral particles they produce can infect humans at all, he notes, much less whether they would cause disease if they did.

Pig organs are the same size as human organs and function pretty much the same way but pig to human transplantation has always been an elusive goal for researchers due to fear of activating dormant viral diseases in the pig's cells.

Specifically, porcine endogenous retroviruses (PERVs) can be carried in the genes of pigs even if they are not ill.

The team managed to remove those viruses, but that doesn't mean that the organ crisis has been solved yet. The viruses' ability to infect cell lines is not enough to be of concern, he says.

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