Pigs are scientists' first choice because their organs and physiology are pretty close matches to humans', and they come with less ethical baggage than, say, chimps or baboons. But with a genome wiped of active viruses, the researchers produced 37 piglets that are PERV-free.
"This research represents an important advance in addressing safety concerns about cross-species viral transmission", Luhan Yang, co-founder and chief scientific officer at eGenesis, said in a statement. She promised that their team will continue to engineer the Perv-free pig strain to make xenotransplant safe and effective.
The news comes as more than 6,000 patients waiting for an organ transplant in the United Kingdom, according to Government figures. Pigs have been a prime candidate as involuntary organ donors since theirs are about the same size as those of humans. This means that the researchers did not just manage to edit the genome of the pig.
Now they might have even more use for humans.
Such patients would still be required to take anti-rejection drugs so the ultimate goal is to grow pigs with human ready organs that don't require any medication.
With modified genes, the scientists created PERV-inactivated pig embryos and transferred them into surrogate sows to produce clones, in the same fashion as Dolly the sheep was created.
"We want to create a world where there is no organ shortage", Yang said.
Many patients may prefer a human organ, Cooper acknowledged, but that is not always possible.
These steps "are probably more challenging" than removing the dormant infections, said Yang.
The company seeks to use xenotransplantation, using animal organs for human transplant, as a way to "alleviate the severe shortage of organs for human transplantation".
The research involved working with the genetic code in the pigs and mixing both human and pig cells together to discover whether the viruses would infect humans. Some of the animals died before birth or soon after, but the team ended up with 15 living piglets, the oldest of which survived up to four months after birth. As a result, Church had wondered if they play an essential role in the pig's survival and whether the animals could develop properly without them. There are few cases where Gene Editing worked really well and recently scientists have eliminated the genetic abnormality in an embryo, using the same.
Meanwhile Ian McConnell, from the University of Cambridge, said: "The use of human organs for transplantation only meets a small percentage of the total and growing number of individuals in desperate need of organ transplantation". Pig heart valves already are routinely transplanted into patients.
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