Soon, these pigs might look and behave just like ordinary pigs—but inside, one of their organs will contain only human cells.
That’s the premise behind a new technology designed to combat the growing shortage of organs available for human transplant across the globe.
A team of scientists from the University of California, Davis injected human stem cells into pig embryos to create human-pig chimeras, or hybrid creatures. So far, the embryos have only been allowed to grow for 28 days—but already some researchers are concerned that these human cells could somehow migrate to the pig embryo’s developing brain and create something more human than strictly pig. But the team is watching the embryos closely to make sure they don’t become too human-like.
Here’s Fergus Walsh, reporting for BBC News:
Creating the chimeric embryos takes two stages. First, a technique known as CRISPR gene editing is used to remove DNA from a newly fertilised pig embryo that would enable the resulting foetus 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 foetus will grow a human pancreas.
Pigs have been targeted for organ transplant purposes in the past; however, the research has been focused on harvesting actual pig organs for human transplant . These animals are ideal “biological incubators” for growing human organs—they could be used to make hearts, livers, kidneys, lungs, and more.
What’s more, the technique could help manufacture dopamine-producing human neurons to treat Parkinson’s disease . It’s likely that pigs will be heavily involved in gene editing research in the coming years—to the dismay of animal rights activists, but to the benefit of millions worldwide in desperate search of organ donations.
Photo credit: Dan Belanescu / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)