Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

This Little Piggy Went to Market

By Michael Cook

Gene editing promises to enable the safe use of pig organs to transplant into humans. Who could object to that?

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The invention of the powerful gene-editing technique CRISPR is a game-changer for genetic engineering, making the removal or insertion of DNA sequences relatively easy and inexpensive. The key paper outlining how it works was published in 2012, but already scientists are eagerly exploiting its therapeutic and commercial potential, from modifying yeast cells to human embryos.

The latest announcement is the most exciting yet. Harvard scientists led by George Church reported in Science that they had removed 62 locations in the DNA of pig embryos that contained the porcine endogenous retrovirus (PERV). Technically this was a tour de force, the largest number of sites modified at the same time using CRISPR.

The danger of infection with PERV has made it impossible to consider using pig organs to replace human organs. Now it seems within reach.

Furthermore, Church says that his team has also modified more than 20 genes that cause immune rejection or blood clotting in humans in a different set of pig embryos.

Church is nearly ready to implant the modified pig embryos into surrogate sows. “This is something I’ve been wanting to do for almost a decade,” he told Nature. A Boston biotech company that he has co-founded, eGenesis, is gearing up to produce the genetically engineered pigs as cheaply as possible.

This could become a very lucrative...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.