A landmark study has reopened the door for xenotransplantation research (research into interspecies transplants).
A team of Chinese and US scientists have created gene-edited piglets that are free of harmful viruses that cause disease in humans. Scientists now believe that pig organs can be edited to prevent rejection when transplanted into the human body.
In a paper published in the journal Science on Thursday, researchers reported that they had successfully used CRISPR technology to “splice out” 25 porcine endogenous retroviruses (PERVs) from the genetic code of 37 piglets. The viruses are scattered throughout the pig genome and have the potential to cause bizarre and harmful retroviral infections in humans.
While safe and effective pig-to-human organ transplants are a long way off, the researchers are optimistic.
"We recognise we are still at the early stages of research and development”, Dr Luhan Yang, a coauthor of the paper, told the BBC. "We know we have an audacious vision of a world with no shortage of organs, that is very challenging, but that is also our motivation to remove mountains."
The next stage of the research, Yang says, will be to essentially “humanize” the pigs—modifying them enough that their organs can function in the human body. This involves immunological changes as well as making the tissues compatible and fixing blood-clotting issues.
Animal rights groups have expressed concern at the research, saying that xenotransplantation may eventually lead to astronomical numbers of pigs being exploited to grow human-like organs.
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