eGenesis spun out of the lab of the Harvard geneticist George Church, who previously reported inactivating 62 copies of PERV from pig cells in 2015. But the jump from specialized pig cells that grow well in labs to living PERV-free piglets wasn’t easy.
“We didn’t even know we could have viable pigs,” says Luhan Yang, a former graduate student in Church’s lab and co-founder of eGenesis. When her team first tried to edit all 62 copies in pig cells that they wanted to turn into embryos, the cells died. They were more sensitive than the specialized cell lines. Eventually Yang and her team figured out a chemical cocktail that could keep these cells alive through the gene-editing process. This technique could be useful in large-scale gene-editing projects unrelated to xenotransplants, too.
When Yang and her team first inactivated PERV from cells in a lab, my colleague Ed Yong suggested that the work was an example of CRISPR’s power rather than a huge breakthrough in pig-to-human transplants, given the challenges of immune compatibility. And true, Yang and Church come at this research as CRISPR pioneers, but not experts in transplantation. At a gathering of organ-transplantation researchers last Friday, Church said that his team had identified about 45 genes to make pig organs more compatible with humans, though he was open to more suggestions. “I would bet we are not as sophisticated as we should be because we’ve only been recently invited [to meetings like this],” he said. It’s an active area of research for eGenesis, though Yang declined to disclose what the company has accomplished so far.
“It’s great genetic-engineering work. It’s an accomplishment to inactivate that many genes,” says Joseph Tector, a xenotransplant researcher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Researchers like Tector, who is also a transplant surgeon, have been chipping away at the problem of immune incompatibility for years, though. CRISPR has sped up that research, too. The first pig gene implicated in the human immune response as one involved in making a molecule called alpha-gal. Making a pig that lacked alpha-gal via older genetic-engineering methods took three years. “Now from concept to pig on the ground, it’s probably six months,” says Tector.
Using CRISPR, his team has created a triple-knockout pig that lacks alpha-gal as well as two other genes involved in molecules that that provoke the human immune system’s immediate “hyperacute rejection” of pig organs. For about 30 percent of people, the organs from these triple-knockout pigs should not cause hyperacute rejection. Tector thinks the patients who receive these pig organs could then be treated with the same immunosuppressant drugs that recipients take after an ordinary human-to-human transplant.
Tector and David Cooper, another transplant pioneer, were both recently recruited to the University of Alabama at Birmingham for a xenotransplant program funded by United Therapeutics, a Maryland biotech company that wants to manufacture transplantable organs.