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Why Pig Organs Could Be the Future of Transplants

Why Pig Organs Could Be the Future of Transplants
From TIME - February 15, 2018

Making human tissue in a lab has always been more sci-fi than sci-fact, but powerful genetic technologies may change that soon.

For the most part, the only way to replace diseased or failing hearts, lungs, kidneys and livers is with donor organs. Even then, many people struggle to find a good biological match with a donor, and 8,000 die each year in the U.S. while waiting for an organ.

In one promising solution to the shortage, researchers have been putting a new DNA editing tool called CRISPR through rigorous tests in organ regeneration. Last August, a group of scientists led by George Church, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, generated more than a dozen pigs that were bred without certain viruses that had made many of their organs unusable for human transplant. Pig genomes often contain genes for viruses that can cause infection and, if they spread to certain tissues, even cancer.

Church used CRISPR to snip out these viral genes from the pig DNA. While there are other ways to edit DNA, CRISPR, developed in 2012, is by far the most precise set of molecular tools to cut, paste, copy and move genes around.

In order to ensure that all the tissues in the pigs were free of the viruses, Church and his team used a cloning technique to create embryos from the edited cells. Of 37 pigs that were born, 15 survived, and none showed genetic signs of the viruses.

Church anticipates that pig-to-human organ transplant clinical trials could happen in as little as two years, which would help address the organ shortage that keeps more than 110,000 people on the transplant list each year. Currently, heart valves from pigs are used to replace diseased or damaged ones from people, but doctors are studying ways that other tissues, like those from the kidney, liver, lungs or pancreas, may be safely transplanted.

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