Scientists have created piglets whose genes were edited to exclude viruses that could cause disease in humans, potentially open the door to pig-to-human organ transplants in the not too-distant future, according to the research published in the Journal Science.
George Church, a Harvard University geneticist and one of the study’s lead researchers, told to New York Times, that the first transplants could take place in as little as two years, although more widespread use is expected to be several years away.
For decades, scientists have been pursuing the idea of pig transplants, but xenotransplantation has some drawbacks. Porcine endogenous retroviruses (PERVs) are permanently embedded in the pig genome but research has shown they can infect human cells, posing a potential hazard.
The existence of PERVs has been a major stumbling bloc preventing the development of genetically engineered pigs to provide kidneys and other organs for transplant into human patients.
Researchers started mapping the presence of PERVs in the Pig genome and by using CRISPR technology, they will able to make PERV-free piglets. Under the experiment, researchers team ended up with 15 living piglets.
CRISPR works as a type of molecular scissors that can selectively trim away unwanted parts of the genome, and replace it with new stretches of DNA. Scientists in China have published identical studies with mixed result.
In 2015, Church and CRISPR expert Luhan Yang co-founded a company called eGenesis, to sell their genetically modified pig organs. According to eGenesis, over 117,000 Americans are currently on organ transplant waiting lists, and 22 people die each day waiting for a transplant.
The company claims that a single animal can save up to eight lives through the transplantation of different organs.
"We plan to increase the numbers of organs available through xenotransplantation, when a human donation isn't an option," eGenesis website states.