Here are some shocking statistics: About 400,000 people die in the U.S. every year from lung diseases. Meanwhile, only about 2,000 people a year receive life-saving lung transplants because there aren't enough implantable organs to meet the need. That leaves about 99.5 percent of people with these diseases with no medical alternatives to save their lives.
Scientists are hoping to change that. Synthetic Genomics, a company founded by noted geneticist J. Craig Venter, has received $50 million in funding to help develop lungs and other organs that could be implanted into needy human patients. The source of these organs: genetically modified pigs.
The process of transferring an organ from an animal to a human is called xenotransplantation. Although it is used to some degree — pig heart valves, most notably — it usually fails because genomic differences cause the human body to reject the organs or cause related problems such as blood clots. Genetically modifying pigs, which already share about 90 percent of their DNA with humans, could help to solve those problems.
Venter told Reuters that the company's first goal is to generate "a brand new super-accurate sequence of the pig genome." The geneticist is best known for his work in sequencing the human genome, so this ties directly into his previous research.
Once they have that genome in hand, the team from Synthetic Genomics will be able to "go in and edit, and where necessary, rewrite using our synthetic genomic tools, the pig genes that seem to be associated with immune responses," Venter said. The company said the level of this genome modification is unprecedented. Venter told the Financial Times that "we believe this is one of the most exciting and important programs every undertaken in modern medical science."
The funding for this research comes from Lung Biotechnology Inc., a subsidiary of United Therapeutics Corporation. In a news release, United Therapeutics CEO Martine Rothblatt called this work a "huge" step toward "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 who die from end-stage organ disease."
The two companies will work together on this research. Venter's organization will edit and rewrite the pig genome, while United Therapeutics will implant them into pig eggs and take the research from there.
Of course some animal rights groups oppose xenotransplantations and related genetic work. The Campaign for Reponsible Transplantation, for example, notes that many diseases can jump from animals to humans and that pigs, in particular, "are highly intelligent and sensitive animals" which "can be subjected to painful biological and surgical manipulations at experimenters' discretion, causing great pain and suffering before death."
The announcement doesn't mean that implantable lungs will be available any time soon. Developing the edited genome will take a few years, and then clinical trials in human subjects will likely take several additional years.
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