Do animals hold the key to the global organ shortage

Gene-editing technology has accelerated progress on animal organ transplant to the point where scientists will soon begin the first human trials

Scientist Wenning Qin holds up a Petri dish, carefully sloshes around the pink liquid inside, and slides it under a microscope. Some identical tiny slashes come into focus. These cells, she explains, are derived from the ear of a pig. And they may contain the future of animal to human organ transplantation.

Researchers in South Korea are expected to transplant pig corneas into humans within a year. A handful of groups across the US are also working toward pig organ clinical trials in the next few years, including a group at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston that is starting a six-person clinical trial using “blankets” of pig skin to temporarily protect the skin of burn victims. At the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s (UAB) medical school, researchers are planning to transplant pig kidneys into adults and hearts into struggling newborns.

And in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at a startup called eGenesis, scientists like Qin, the company’s director of genome engineering, are gene editing pig cells in preparation. Their goal – shared by a handful of other biotech companies in the US and Europe working on genetic engineering – is to create pigs whose organs can be safely transplanted into people.

“I think this is a magical point in the field of [animal transplants],” says William Westlin, eGenesis’ executive vice-president for research and development. “It’s no longer a question of if. It’s just a question of when.”

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