Gene editing creates virus-free piglets

Advance moves the animals one step closer to becoming organ donors for people

piglets lacking PERVs

THREE LITTLE PIGS  Researchers are working to create pigs that can donate organs for human transplant. These piglets are part of the first litter of pigs engineered to lack viruses called PERVs.


Pigs are a step closer to becoming organ donors for people.

Researchers used molecular scissors known as CRISPR/Cas9 to snip embedded viruses out of pig DNA. Removing the viruses — called porcine endogenous retroviruses, or PERVs — creates piglets that can’t pass the viruses on to transplant recipients, geneticist Luhan Yang and colleagues report online August 10 in Science.

Yang, a cofounder of eGenesis in Cambridge, Mass., and colleagues had previously sliced 62 PERVs at a time from pig cells grown in the lab (SN: 11/14/15, p. 6). Many of the embedded viruses are already damaged and can’t make copies of themselves to pass on an infection. So in the new study, the researchers removed just 25 viruses that were still capable of infecting other cells.

The team had to overcome several technical hurdles to make PERV-less pig cells that still had the normal number of chromosomes. In a process similar to the one that created Dolly the Sheep (SN: 3/1/97, p. 132), researchers sucked the DNA-containing nuclei from the virus-cleaned cells and injected them into pig eggs. The technique, called somatic cell nuclear transfer, is better known as cloning. Embryos made from the cloned cells were transplanted to sows to develop into piglets.

The process is still not very efficient. Researchers placed 200 to 300 embryos in each of 17 sows. Only 37 piglets were born, and 15 are still living. The oldest are about 4 months old. Such virus-free swine could be a starting point for further genetic manipulations to make pig organs compatible with humans.

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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