In a scientific first, researchers have created piglets that could possibly one day provide organs for human transplants. Though the science is still early, it’s a big step forward in the quest to use pig organs to help the hundreds of thousands of people every year who await organ transplants.
In a report published Thursday in the journal Science, scientists from Harvard University, the biotech company eGenesis and several other institutions were able to use gene editing and cloning to create virus-free piglets that could potentially be used in the future for human organ transplants. As the New York Times reports, researchers have wanted to explore using pigs as organ sources in the past, but plans were thwarted by the fear that viruses from the pigs, called retroviruses, could infect humans through the transplants.
In the new report, scientists detail how they took pig cells and edited them using the gene-editing technology CRISPR-Cas9 to target and hinder their virus-related DNA. They then cloned those edited cells and developed an embryo. Those embryos were implanted into sows and then became piglets.
As STAT reports, out of 37 piglets, all were born without retroviruses. Not all were brought to term, and some were killed so the scientists could check how their organs were developing, but today, 15 piglets are still alive.
Study author George Church, a geneticist at Harvard and founder of eGenesis, told the Times he thinks that pig-to-human transplants could happen within two years. However, other researchers argue that it could be years before scientists even know if pig organ transplants are safe.