We're one step closer to using pig organs in human transplants

An average of 22 people die in America every day while waiting for organ transplants, but a group of researchers from the biotech company eGenesis hope to eventually change that statistic by using organs from cloned pig cells.

Using a gene-editing tool called CRISPR, the researchers edited the DNA of pigs, removing potentially harmful viruses from their organs. Scientists then cloned those edited cells, put them in an egg, and implanted that egg into a sow. This enabled them to ultimately breed pigs with virus-free organs.

So why is this significant?

"In studies done before, if you took pig cells and human cells and put them together, the viruses would go to the human cells. And so now they've been eliminated, or inactivated. So all of a sudden, it opens the door for the potential of pigs," CBS News medical contributor Dr. David Agus said Friday on "CBS This Morning." "Pigs' organs are about the same size as human organs, so it's actually perfect for transplantations."

The breakthrough in eliminating viruses like the porcine endogenous retroviruses (PERVs) brings us one step closer to xenotransplantation, or transplants between different species. 

"It's absolutely wild — I mean literally considered science fiction several years ago," Agus said.

In human heart valve replacements, pig valves are used, but they are put in formaldehyde and fixed, Agus said. The new research is different because "these are live cells, functioning [organs] — kidneys, livers, hearts. It really is going to be dramatic how it could affect many human lives," he added.

Altering the DNA and the rapid advances with CRISPR have raised legal and ethical concerns. Most recently, scientists announced they successfully repaired a disease-causing gene in human embryos using CRISPR. Agus called for an international group to start drawing boundaries.

"We're talking about some dramatic advances and literally happening week by week, but they can keep going. And so the challenge is to do it right," Agus said. "The challenge is someone not to change an embryo to make them taller, stronger, faster. The challenge is to do it to benefit human health in a positive way on a global sense." 

To read full story on CBS News, click here.

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