|These pigs have been genetically engineered to inactivate|
virus genes inside their DNA, a major barrier to pig-to-
human transplants. Courtesy of eGenesis
by Sarah Zhang, The Atlantia, 10 August 2017
Scientists announce the birth of 37 pigs gene-edited to be better for human transplant.
The idea of transplanting organs from pigs into humans has been around for a long time. And for a long time, xenotransplants—or putting organs from one species into another—has come up against two seemingly insurmountable problems.
The first problem is fairly intuitive: Pig organs provoke a massive and destructive immune response in humans—far more so than an organ from another person. The second problem is less obvious: Pig genomes are rife with DNA sequences of viruses that can infect human cells. In the 1990s, the pharmaceutical giant Novartis planned to throw as much $1 billion at animal-to-human transplant research, only to shutter its research unit after several years of failed experiments.
Quite suddenly, however, solving these two problems has become much easier and much faster thanks to the gene-editing technology CRISPR. With CRISPR, scientists can knock out the pig genes that trigger the human immune response. And they can inactivate the viruses—called porcine endogenous retroviruses, or PERVs—that lurk in the pig genome.
On Thursday, scientists working for a startup called eGenesis reported the birth of 37 PERV-free baby pigs in China, 15 of them still surviving. The black-and-white piglets are now several months old, and they belong to a breed of miniature pigs that will grow no bigger than 150 pounds—with organs just the right size for transplant into adult humans.
eGenesis spun out of the lab of the Harvard geneticist George Church, who previously reported inactivating 62 copies of PERV from pig cells in 2015. But the jump from specialized pig cells that grow well in labs to living PERV-free piglets wasn’t easy.“From concept to pig on the ground, it’s probably six months.”
“We didn’t even know we could have viable pigs,” says Luhan Yang, a former graduate student in Church’s lab and co-founder of eGenesis. When her team first tried to edit all 62 copies in pig cells that they wanted to turn into embryos, the cells died. They were more sensitive than the specialized cell lines. Eventually Yang and her team figured out a chemical cocktail that could keep these cells alive through the gene-editing process. This technique could be useful in large-scale gene-editing projects unrelated to xenotransplants, too.
When Yang and her team first inactivated PERV from cells in a lab, my colleague Ed Yong suggested that the work was an example of CRISPR’s power rather than a huge breakthrough in pig-to-human transplants, given the challenges of immune compatibility. And true, Yang and Church come at this research as CRISPR pioneers, but not experts in transplantation. At a gathering of organ-transplantation researchers last Friday, Church said that his team had identified about 45 genes to make pig organs more compatible with humans, though he was open to more suggestions. “I would bet we are not as sophisticated as we should be because we’ve only been recently invited [to meetings like this],” he said. It’s an active area of research for eGenesis, though Yang declined to disclose what the company has accomplished so far.
“It’s great genetic-engineering work. It’s an accomplishment to inactivate that many genes,” says Joseph Tector, a xenotransplant researcher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Researchers like Tector, who is also a transplant surgeon, have been chipping away at the problem of immune incompatibility for years, though. CRISPR has sped up that research, too. The first pig gene implicated in the human immune response as one involved in making a molecule called alpha-gal. Making a pig that lacked alpha-gal via older genetic-engineering methods took three years. “Now from concept to pig on the ground, it’s probably six months,” says Tector.