Scientists may have stumbled upon a solution to stop the 500 people who die in the UK every year waiting for an organ transplant – pigs.
Researchers have long believed that they could use xenotransplantation (transplant between different species) with our porcine friends, as their physiology is the closest match and they don’t carry the same ethical baggage as other members of the animal kingdom, such as chimps or baboons.
But in the past pig organs also carried the problem of dangerous retroviruses that could infect any potential human recipient.
Now scientists in a new study have overcome this (fairly huge) obstacle as they have been able to create piglets without any of these viruses present in their system.
In a historical first, researchers at Harvard University and tech company eGenesis, were able to use the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing tool to remove the “deal-breaking” strain of pig DNA that was a barrier to making them donors.
Taking pig cells, the team edited them to target and hinder the virus-related DNA, they then cloned those cells and developed an embryo.
Those embryos were implanted into sows in China and became 37 ‘designer’ piglets, that were all 100% virus-free.
Not all were brought to term and over half of the population had their lives ended in order for scientists to check in on how their organs were developing. Today 15 of the piglets are alive.
While not all of the pigs survived, study author George Church argued that they demonstrated what they needed in order to make this method a realistic prospect.
In fact, he told Time that he believes this could be implemented in real-world medicine as soon as two years time.
This isn’t the first time this year that humans and pigs have been forced together by science, in order to further the prospects for organ donation.
In January, scientists created a human-pig chimera (an embryo that essentially combines the cells from a human with that of a pig).
They hadn’t yet been able to grow a complete human organ inside a pig yet, that’s still some way off but they have been having remarkable success with other animals.
Using cutting edge gene-editing techniques the team were actually able to grow both the pancreas, heart and eyes from a rat inside the embryo of a mouse.
In the UK there are currently around 6,500 people on the UK Transplant Waiting List, according to NHS records.