CRISPR technology: From low-fat pigs to pig-to-human organ transplants

You have probably heard of NetEase’s pig farming business, which targets affluent Chinese consumers. According to NetEase, their pigs are fed with natural food and monitored through sensors. Meituan-Dianping, Sinovation Ventures, and JD, joined a RMB 160 million (USD 23 million) series A round in NetEase’s pig farm in April of last year.

Low-fat pigs

Each year, more than 600 million pigs are consumed in China. Aside from food safety and taste, what can be done to improve the pig farming industry? How does low-fat pork sound to you? Chinese researchers have created 12 healthy pigs with about 24% less body fat than normal pigs in October 2017. You may be wondering if the reason for such an invention is to benefit people on a diet. The answer is no.

These pigs have less body fat because they have a gene called Uncoupling protein 1 (UCP1) that allows them to regulate their body temperature better by burning fat. As a result, they are more resistant to the cold weather than their normal peers. UCP1, a protein that regulates body temperature in cold weather, can be found in most mammals. However, pigs lack a functional UCP1 gene, which results in poor thermoregulation.

Chinese researchers “copied” the mouse’s UCP1 and “pasted” it into the pigs’ embryo. The genome editing technology is called Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR). You can think of CRISPR as a “molecular scissor”. Dr. Jianguo Zhao is the leading researcher for this study. His team believes in the potential of these pigs for agricultural production.

Supplemental heat costs make up about 35% of the energy expenditure in swine farrow-to-finish operations. In the U.S., 94 million pigs are sold every year, bringing about an annual expenditure of USD 99.3 million in heating. China’s production (600 million pigs) is 6 times greater than that of the U.S. market. The massive cost can possibly be reduced through the newest CRISPR technology.

CRISPR creates not only more resilient animals like pigs, but also foods like fruits and vegetables. When climate change alters the way we produce food, advanced technology like CRISPR certainly can help us lower the food production cost and increase productivity and nutritional value.

However, in China, only GMO crop seeds have been approved, and mostly for better tolerance to herbicide or pests. In the U.S., it took decades for the FDA to approve the GMO salmon. It is still unclear if the genetically modified pigs will be accepted by the authorities and customers.

Other CRISPR applications and development

Researchers are excited about other CRISPR applications in healthcare, for example, deleting genes that cause chronic diseases or cancers as well as growing human organs in pigs. CRISPR startups have sprouted. CRISPR Therapeutics, Editas Medicine, and Intellia Therapeutics went public in 2016, and each valuation of IPO exceeded USD 500 million.

eGenesis’ mission is to use CRISPR to overcome the compatibility issues around pig-to-human organ transplants. Luhan Yang, originally from China, is the co-founder and the Chief Scientific Officer at eGenesis. She won the Forbes 30 Under 30 in Science and Healthcare in 2014 and the Bloomberg 50 influential people in 2017. Reading her story on Bloomberg, you will find out how her team used CRISPR to remove 62 PERVs viruses residing in pigs’ genome.

Gene editing trials in humans started in 2009 to treat HIV. But the progress was very slow due to the high costs and low reliability. CRISPR changed the rules of the game. It is an easy, cheap, and, more importantly, precise, way to edit genes. Just imagine, someone without a science background can hack the genome using the USD 159 ODIN DIY CRISPR kit!

Among the clinical CRISPR trials is a trial in humans to prevent cervical cancers by destroying the genes of the human papillomavirus (HPV) in China. The trial plans to recruit 60 female participants aged 18 years old to 50 years old who have documented HPV infections.The current HPV vaccine does not work on people who have been infected by HPV. If the CRISPR trial works out, it will save many lives every year.

As with any gene editing technology, people are concerned with the bioethical issues. What happens if a deadly, drug-resistant, mother-of-all mutant bacteria is created either by chance or on purpose? What happens if the edited embryos become fully grown humans and pass on mutations to all their offspring? Two blind mice were able to have their sight restored using CRISPR, but there were hundreds of unintended mutations found throughout their genome. In two studies to treat blood disorders and HIV in China, researchers were only able to edit some defective embryos, but that resulted in other unintended mutations. The divided opinions over CRISPR caused a summit in 2015. Researchers agreed that CRISPR-modified embryos shouldn’t become full human beings.

(Top photo from Sohu.com)

Fang Yuan
Fang Yuan

Fang Yuan is our columnist. She is originally from Shanghai and now lives in New York. She is a Certified Passive House Consultant and works on sustainable building consulting. She believes that technology helps people and the environment if it is being used mindfully.

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