There is no question that there is an organ donor crisis in the United States. According to OrganDonor.gov, there are 117,000 people waiting for organ transplants in the states and 22 people die every day waiting for transplants. Part of the problem is that people just don’t want to donate their organs even after they die, and the U.S. organ supply is limited based on our opt-in donor consent policy.
Even if someone chooses to donate their family can protest after a donor’s death for any reason they decide. Both cultural reasons and medical distrust can cause families to protest a donation after death. And not everyone who would like to donate can, only 3 people in 1000 die in a way that allows for organ donation.
It also doesn’t help that organ transplants need to happen within limited time frames, meaning that an organ has to go from a donor to the transplant recipient in as little as four hours. That doesn’t really allow for a lot of travel distance between donor and recipient.
However, a new startup might have found a solution to our organ donation crisis. Called Egenesis, the startup is using the gene-editing tool CRISPR to make pig organs viable for human transplants.
The process, called xenotransplantation (from the Greek xénos meaning stranger, strange, or alien) has several hurdles that make it difficult. The biggest problem is a specific gene called galactose-alpha-1,3,galactotransferase — gal-transferase for short. Humans and higher apes don’t have a working version of gal-transferase, while all other mammals do. This means that any organ with that gene are automatically rejected and attacked by our immune system when transplanted into a human.
Previously, scientists worked to genetically modify pigs to eliminate the gel-transferase gene, adding more human genes to the pigs in order to make the pig tissue even more acceptable. However, they were unable to find a perfect solution to the problem of rejection.
In addition, humans and pigs are similar enough that the fact that pigs carry genes encoded with viruses means that these diseases could potentially transmit to humans.
Egensis, co-founded by Harvard geneticist George Church and 31-year old Luhan Yang, were able to use the CRISPR tool to inactive 62 virus genes in pig embryos and develop better pig clones that tackle the immunology challenges. Today they have 15 surviving piglets from their original litter of 37.
Now all that’s left to do is test the pigs and see if the organs are safe and effective. From there, we are well on our way to clinical trials and solving the organ donor crisis once and for all.