They might just did that already, because of bacon, but that’s a whole different story. This month, scientists gathered at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington to talk about Crispr, a new method for editing genes.
In the last couple of years, the technique has become so potent and accessible that many experts are calling for limits on its possible uses, such as shifting human embryos with changes that could be inherited by future generations. This sounds right now like a futuristic thing, but, for instance, in the 90’s we never would’ve guessed what the future had in stored for us.
Scientist, George Church of Harvard Medical School and one of the Crispr’s pioneers dropped the bomb during his presentation: the fine details of biochemistry and genetics. In a characteristic experiment, scientists use Crispr to alter a single gene. But in a more recent work with pig cells, Dr. Church and his colleagues used Crispr to alter 62 genes at once. Researchers are hoping that this amazing realization may someday make it possible to use pig organs for transplantation into humans. Of course, medicine is already using pig parts to help patients, for instance orthopedic surgeons use tissue patches from pigs’ intestines to help human injuries. But this discovery goes way beyond that.
Dr. Church’s experiment had its roots in the idea of the shortage of organs for transplants. Thousands of people die each year waiting hopelessly for body parts. “It’s a cruel situation currently, that someone who needs a heart transplant has to pin their chance for a healthy life on the untimely death of another person,” said David Dunn, an expert on transplantation at the State University of New York.
Although the research was on the go in the 1990s with the idea of a technique called xenotransplantation, it was stopped somewhere in 1998 due to the high risks it carried. They found that pig organs were carriers of viruses and other pathogens that might harm their human hosts.
In the latest experiment, Dr. Church and his colleagues first examined pig cells to figure out exactly how many pig cells were contained in the genome. The researchers found 62. Had they found thousands, the experiment might not have been successful. The DNA was approximately identical from virus to virus, because all of them derived from a single ancestor that overran the pig genome long ago. To eliminate these viruses, Dr. Church and his team built a new set of genes and inserted them into pig cells and in only 2 weeks the modified cells managed to alter their own viral DNA. Quite astonishing, right?
Dr. Church and his colleagues have started testing with Crispr to lower the risk that patients will reject transplanted pig organs, interfering with 25 genes involved in producing molecules on the surface of pig cells that alert the immune system. The results are not yet published, but we’re all just anxiously waiting for them!