Scientists in the United States are trying to grow human organs inside pigs.
They have injected human stem cells into pig embryos to produce human-pig embryos known as chimeras. The embryos are part of research aimed at overcoming the worldwide shortage of transplant organs. The team from University of California, Davis says they should look and behave like normal pigs except that one organ will be composed of human cells. The human-pig chimeric embryos are being allowed to develop in the sows for 28 days before the pregnancies are terminated and the tissue removed for analysis. The BBC’s Panorama was given access to the research for Medicine’s Big Breakthrough: Editing Your Genes.
Creating a chimera
Creating the chimeric embryos takes two stages. First, a technique known as CRISPR gene editing is used to remove DNA from a newly fertilized pig embryo that would enable the resulting fetus to grow a pancreas. This creates a genetic “niche” or void. Then, human induced pluripotent (iPS) stem cells are injected into the embryo. The iPS cells were derived from adult cells and “dialled back” to become stem cells capable of developing into any tissue in the body. The team at UC Davis hopes the human stem cells will take advantage of the genetic niche in the pig embryo and the resulting fetus will grow a human pancreas.
Gene editing technique could transform future
According to Pablo Ross, a reproductive biologist, who is leading the research: “Our hope is that this pig embryo will develop normally but the pancreas will be made almost exclusively out of human cells and could be compatible with a patient for transplantation.” But the work is controversial. Last year, the main US medical research agency, the National Institutes of Health, imposed a moratorium on funding such experiments. The main concern is that the human cells might migrate to the developing pig’s brain and make it, in some way, more human.
Pablo Ross says this is unlikely but is a key reason why the research is proceeding with such caution: “We think there is very low potential for a human brain to grow, but this is something we will be investigating.”
His team has previously injected human stem cells into pig embryos but without first creating the genetic niche. Prof Ross said although they later found human cells in several parts of the developing fetus, they “struggled to compete” with the pig cells. By deleting a key gene involved in the creation of the pig pancreas, they hope the human cells will have more success creating a human-like pancreas.
Other teams in the United States have created human-pig chimeric embryos but none has allowed the fetuses to be born.
Walter Low, professor in the department of neurosurgery, University of Minnesota, said pigs were an ideal “biological incubator” for growing human organs, and could potentially be used to create not just a pancreas but hearts, livers, kidneys, lungs and corneas. He said if the iPS cells were taken from a patient needing a transplant then these could be injected in a pig embryo which had the key genes deleted for creating the required organ, such as the liver: “The organ would be an exact genetic copy of your liver but a much younger and healthier version and you would not need to take immunosuppressive drugs which carry side-effects.” But Prof Low stressed that the research, using another form of gene editing called TALENs, was still at the preliminary stages, trying to identify the target genes which must be removed in order to prevent the pig from developing a particular organ.
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