The Next Pig Thing

In the US, around 400,000 people die each year from lung disease, and only 2,000 are saved with lung transplants. However, many companies are beginning to think outside of the box to find other solutions to the shortage of viable lungs. A recent medical breakthrough by Australian scientists has shown that it is possible to genetically alter pig lungs that can be transplanted into humans.
“We believe this is one of the most exciting and important programs ever undertaken in modern medical science,” founder and chief executive of Synthetic Genomics Inc., Craig Venter, said via the Wall Street Journal.”
Genetically, pigs are the species most closely related to humans, and scientists have been experimenting with transplanting organs from pigs to humans for the past 20 years to no avail. However, everything changed when Australian scientists in Melbourne’s St. Vincent’s Hospital finally discovered how to remove the Gal gene, a section of pig DNA that made the pig organs incompatible with human blood.
“This is a significant advance,” Dr. Glenn Westall from Melbourne’s Alfred Hospital told Daily Mail UK. “Where before we saw the system crash and the lungs destroyed within 10 minutes, the lungs seemed to be working perfectly well at the end of our experiment after many hours.”
Xenotransplantation, the possibility of animal to human transplants, is still a relatively new concept, but the future looks bright. Researchers are working to identify all compatible parts of the pig’s genome, and then Synthetic Genomics Inc., a company at the forefront of xenotransplantation, will edit and rewrite the pig’s genome. Afterwards, the results will be presented to United Therapeutics, another company pioneering these efforts, who will then take the altered cells and implant them into pig eggs.
“[United Therapeutics’] new collaboration with Synthetic Genomics is huge for accelerating our efforts to cure end-stage lung disease. Our combined expertise should enable us to develop an unlimited supply of transplantable organs, potentially helping millions of patients,” Martine Rothblatt, Chairman and CEO of United Therapeutics, said in a press release.
However, xenotransplantation has the medical world split in half. Some medical ethicisits, such as Associate Professor Nicholas Tonti-Filippini have said that such transplants have the potential to bring animal diseases into the human population. They also say that these people would become a human-pig hybrid, and they worry about the community’s ability to accept someone who is part human and part animal.
“I think it’s a good thing,” senior Alex Samper said. “People die waiting to get transplants, and if this could save their lives I think it’s great. If you or someone you love is dying and there was a way to save them, you would do it in a heartbeat, even if it meant giving them pig lungs.”