Due to a powerful new gene editing tool, scientists come one step closer to pig organ transplants. The tool allows researchers to remove the DNA sequences in the animals’ genome that make organs incompatible with human recipients.
According to a study published in the journal science Sunday, the new breakthrough is one example of how far genetic engineering can go in altering genes. Some of the study authors hope that transplanting pig organs into human bodies may soon become reality, a goal they are working on with support from private companies.
In the U.S. alone, 122,500 people need an organ transplant but they have to stay in line because of the organ shortage. And pig organ transplants may solve this issues that takes its toll on human lives every year.
Researchers argue that pig organs are the most suitable organs to be transplanted into humans because of similar size. But attempted pig organ transplants so far were unsuccessful because the human body’s immune response rejects animal organs as foreign bodies.
Plus, pig tissue contains copies of the DNA of a virus called the porcine endogenous retrovirus (PERV) that is highly infectious to humans as well. Humans can get the virus from their food especially if they have a weak immune system.
But George Church of Harvard University and his team planned to solve the PERV issue and bring animal organ transplants into focus once more. Church said that the topic was in the doldrums for more than a decade and only ‘true believers’ kept it on life support.
Scientists used the CRISPR method to edit DNA via a short strand of guide RNA in pig organs. CRISPR is a method inspired from nature: bacteria fight off invading viruses by destroying their DNA. The research team was able to insert guide RNA into pig tissue to alter a gene that is common to all PERV sequences in pig kidney cells.
Researchers were able to terminate the gene and inactivate all PERV sequences in pig kidney cells. Plus, the hacked pig cells’ odds of infecting a human with the virus dropped by 1,000 percent and made it easier for scientists come one step closer to pig organ transplants.
Jennifer Doudna, one of the geneticists who developed CRISPR, was impressed with the results. She was shocked to learn that the cells were still alive after researchers edited them in more than 60 places. The finding may help medical researchers develop a new line of flu vaccines that make the human body permanently immune to disease.
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