Virus-free pigs save our ba­con

The Star Early Edition - - OPINION & ANALYSIS -

SCI­EN­TISTS have taken a “sig­nif­i­cant step” to­wards trans­plant­ing pig or­gans into peo­ple af­ter re­mov­ing a threat­en­ing virus from the an­i­mal’s DNA.

For two decades, re­searchers have been try­ing to safely har­vest the or­gans – which are sim­i­lar in size and func­tion to our own – for hu­mans.

A ma­jor ob­sta­cle un­til now has been the can­cer viruses em­bed­ded in pigs’ DNA, which are ca­pa­ble of mak­ing the jump to hu­man cells. This has now been cleared, in a world-first, which has seen live pigs ge­net­i­cally en­gi­neered to erad­i­cate the virus.

Har­vard Uni­ver­sity sci­en­tists are among a team which used gene-edit­ing tool CRISPR Cas9 to pro­duce 37 piglets free of porcine en­doge­nous retro-virus. Dr Luhan Yang, from biotech com­pany eGe­n­e­sis, which led the team, said: “This re­search rep­re­sents an im­por­tant ad­vance in ad­dress­ing safety con­cerns about cross-species vi­ral trans­mis­sion.”

Now only two ob­sta­cles re­main to pig or­gans be­ing trans­planted into hu­mans: the im­mune sys­tem re­ject­ing the for­eign or­gan, and in­com­pat­i­bil­ity caused by an­i­mal or­gans fail­ing to work af­ter they have been im­planted.

The sci­en­tific team be­hind the virus break­through say they will work to use gene edit­ing to re­move these chal­lenges, too.

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