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Gene editing breakthrough could pave way for pig-to-human organ transplants

Scientists have harnessed gene-editing technology to eliminate viruses in pigs that could be harmful to people, potentially laying the foundations for pig-to-human organ transplants.

Researchers from biotech company eGenesis used the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology to produce pigs lacking active Porcine Endogenous Retrovirus (PERV). CRISPR, which has been compared to a pair of “molecular scissors” lets scientists alter or replace specific sections of DNA.

Scientists’ goal is to alleviate the shortage of available organs for human transplant.

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“We now have living, healthy, four-month-old pigs that we have engineered,” George Church, Professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and adviser to eGenesis, told Fox News. “We have gotten rid of the retrovirus.”

MIT Technology Review reports that eGenesis has so far produced 37 gene-edited pigs. Some 25 copies of the viruses were disabled in pig embryos, which were implanted in female pigs. The pigs then gave birth to the virus-free piglets.

“It’s the largest number of changes that has been made to a living animal,” explained Church, who is one of the inventors of CRISPR-Cas9. The viruses, he added, were genetically inactivated, as opposed to deleted. This means that the remaining “virus package” forms a protein that can still provide protection against wild viruses.

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With similar size organs to humans, scientists are looking at ways to use the animals for a host of organ transplants. Pig organs, however, are quickly rejected by the human body, hence the push to make them more compatible.

“In parallel with getting rid of the viruses, we have been making the pig organs so that they will not be rejected by the human recipient,” Church told Fox News. “The next stage will be combining these and doing clinical trials.”

Clinical trials could occur two years from now, according to the genetics expert.

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A peer-reviewed paper on the research was published Thursday in the journal Science.

“This is a major milestone,” Church added. “The real breakthrough will be when people are moving around for years with pig organs, only then will we really know that it’s safe and effective.”

Gene editing has been generating plenty of buzz recently.

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In another project, researchers used gene-editing to correct a disease-causing gene mutation in human embryos, preventing the mutation from passing to future generations. In the stunning discovery, a research team led by Oregon Health and Science University reported that embryos can fix themselves if scientists jump-start the process early enough.

Follow James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers