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Xenotransplantation: Research Pigs Lead to Milestone in Skin Transplants

pig being held by person - xenotransplantation

Researchers in China have genetically engineered a pig with human DNA and transplanted skin grafts onto monkeys, a breakthrough they say will open the door to new skin/organ transplants. This type of surgery is called xenotransplantation, the process of transplanting or grafting tissue or organs from one species to another.

And at times when the number of people in America awaiting organ transplant dwarfs the number of transplants performed, xenotransplantation may provide a solution to a worldwide organ shortage.

Although research swine are widely used in biomedical studies due to their physiological similarity to humans, they are not similar enough for transplants. Genetically modifying donor pigs may someday work, but researchers have yet to determine the appropriate modifications for xenotransplantation between humans and pigs.

The research team in this study, based at First Affiliated Hospital at China’s Nanchang University, removed key pig genes that trigger organ rejection and added human genes before transplanting skin from the pigs to monkeys.

After the transplant, the monkeys were able to survive more than three weeks without needing immunosuppressive drugs.

“Genetic modification of the pig is necessary to account for the differences between the pig and human genome, especially from the immune and molecular compatibility aspects,” write the authors, adding that CRISPR/Cas9 technology has accelerated this process but determining which combinations “remains an open question.”

The researchers noted that extensive genome editing for some pig cells isn’t feasible due to telomere length, which requires significant editing and a lengthy cell culture time. In addition, there’s also the risk – however unlikely – that the porcine endogenous retrovirus could infect the human host.

Still, the Nanchang team called the study a “milestone” in transplantation that could have “great potential for clinical value to save severe and large area burn patients and other human organ failure.”

“As the skin is considered the vital, unique and immunogenicity organ, our preliminary success in skin xenotransplantation using the combination of multi-gene modified pig in NHP provides the approval of the concept, paves a way to initiate the other organ preclinical trial and clinical trial, implies a success of these organs’ xenotransplantation,” writes study author Wang Gang. He adds that genetically altered pigs could offer “the potential to become an unlimited organ source for future clinical transplantation.”

This study is yet another illustration of how research swine can help the biomedical world make breakthroughs that can improve the lives of humans.

Animal Biotech is pleased to have played a role in this sort of research, offering live research swine and porcine tissue – along with expertise on proper animal care – to the biomedical world. Contact us today to learn how we can assist you with your next project.