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Asean & Global Updates
POSTED | 13:59 PM | 11-08-2017

Breakthrough in pig-to-human organ transplants

Scientists are one step closer to transplanting pig organs into ailing patients whose bodies are failing them, thanks to a gene-editing breakthrough from Harvard Medical School and a Kendall Square startup, The Boston Herald reported on Friday (August 11, 2017).

Researchers used CRISPR, a controversial technique that snips out unwanted pieces of DNA, to remove viruses in pigs that have long stood in the way of cross-species transplantation.

“This research represents an important advance in addressing safety concerns about cross-species viral transmission,” Luhan Yang, a Harvard scientist who co-founded eGenesis in 2015 with Harvard geneticist George Church, said in a statement.

The study was published on Thursday in the journal Science.

This is the second time in a matter of weeks that CRISPR has made headlines. Earlier this month, researchers used the method to wipe out a genetic mutation responsible for hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a potentially deadly heart condition that causes the cardiac muscles to harden.

But this development is an especially innovative use of the technology and even surprised other leaders in Boston’s genomics community, including Dr Robert Green of Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

“Here I am a geneticist, and it wouldn’t have occurred to me,” Green said. “This is somewhat unexpected and really exciting.”

Green hailed the revolutionary study as further evidence “that the era of genomics in general and manipulating genomics is upon us, and it’s going to be opening lots and lots of doors.”

It is estimated that more than 118,000 people in the US are in need of a lifesaving organ transplant, and only 75,000 are candidates on the waiting list.

The well-known organ shortage has motivated researchers to delve into new transplant territory.

Scientists have been trying for decades to advance the field of xenotransplantation — taking organs from one species and implanting them in another — and pigs are prime candidates due to the similar size and function of their organs to humans.

But they also carry diseases that a person, weakened and vulnerable after a transplant surgery, would be at high risk of contracting.

“This overcomes a very significant obstacle in terms of some of the infectious disease barriers in xenotransplantation,” said Dr Charles Strom, surgical director of Living Donor Kidney Transplant at Tufts Medical Center.

Of course, he said, this doesn’t solve all the problems associated with using pig organs. There’s still a risk that human bodies would recognize them as foreign entities and reject them.

“We’re not talking about it happening tomorrow, but it’s a major step,” Strom said. “There are other barriers that still exist, but this is still a major breakthrough.”


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