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Toward Safer Pig Organs for Human Transplants

14 August 2017
Giulio Prisco


The top recent biotech news headlines report that scientists have for the first time used CRISPR gene editing to eliminate a family of viruses in pigs that can be transmitted to people, making pig organs safer for transplant in humans. Biotech company eGenesis, spun out of Harvard geneticist George Church’s lab, has produced 37 healthy and virus-free pigs, MIT Technology Review reports.

“eGenesis is committed to harnessing CRISPR technology to deliver safe and effective human transplantable cells, tissues and organs grown in pigs, thus addressing a dire need for hundreds of thousands of patients worldwide,” states an eGenesis press release. “Our team will further engineer the PERV-free pig strain to deliver safe and effective xenotransplantation,” said eGenesis co-founder Luhan Yang.

Xenotransplantation - using animal organs for human transplants - can sound disturbing at first. But United Therapeutics founder and CEO Martine Rothblatt is persuaded that pig organs can and should be used for transplants. United Therapeutics pursues an ambitious plan to start clinical trials of gene-edited pig lungs by the end of the decade, Nature News reported.

CRISPR used to eliminate retroviruses in pigs, making xenotransplantation safer. An international team of scientists led by biotechnology company eGenesis have edited the pig genome to deactivate a family of retroviruses. Using CRISPR gene editing technology, the researchers eliminated porcine endogenous retroviruses (PERVs), which can be passed on to other cells when cultured together. The research results, published in Science, show that piglets grown from gene-edited embryos exhibited no signs of PERVs. The risk of cross-species transmission of PERVs has so far prevented xenotransplantation, the very promising use of animal organs for human transplant. Therefore, according to the scientists, the results hold important implications for transplant medicine in humans.

Rejuvenating the brain by tweaking a single gene. Scientists at University of Utah Health have rejuvenated the plasticity of the mouse brain, specifically in the visual cortex, increasing its ability to change in response to experience. The research results, published in PNAS, show that manipulating a single gene triggers the shift, revealing it as a target for new treatments to recover the brain's youthful potential. While additional research is needed to determine whether plasticity in humans and mice is regulated in the same way, the scientists are persuaded that this work has implications for potentially reducing normal cognitive decline with aging.

Mapping the brain, neuron by neuron. An international team of neuroscientists have created a complete map of the learning and memory center of the fruit fly larva brain, an early step toward mapping how all animal brains work. The study, published in Nature, shows that the team mapped roughly 1,600 of the 10,000 neurons contained in a larva's entire brain. This is a big step forward from previous work that mapped a roundworm brain with roughly 300 neurons. Mapping the complete synapse-level structural connectome for the human brain, which is the goal of the BRAIN initiative, is still far, but according to the researchers this work represents a step forward.

Psychedelic experiences for mental health. Researchers at the University of Adelaide have reported growing evidence that psychedelic experiences triggered by psychedelic drugs such as LSD and magic mushrooms can be truly "transformative" and help patients with mental health issues. The study, published in Neuroscience of Consciousness, suggests that the sense of dissolution of the self and connection with the world produced by psychedelic experiences is beneficial for people suffering from anxiety, depression, and some forms of addiction.

AI helps monitoring and diagnosing sleep disorders. MIT researchers have devised a new way to monitor sleep stages without sensors attached to the body, using an advanced Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithm to analyze the radio signals around the person. The method represents an advance toward non-invasively diagnosing and monitoring sleep disorders, which reduce the quality of life of tens of millions of patients in the US. The scientists presented their paper at the International Conference on Machine Learning.

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