Pigs to People

Posted by Pete Shanks November 24, 2014
Biopolitical Times

In his usual understated and modest way, the media-savvy scientist/entrepreneur Craig Venter planted a seed that grew into a thoroughly misleading headline in the San Jose Mercury News:

Synthetic biologist aims to create pig with human lungs

Not exactly. The pig would have pig lungs, but with some tweaks that would reduce at least the initial rejection of the organ by a human recipient's immune system. Sounded good, though!

Previous reports indicated that Venter's Synthetic Genomics is working on this project with Lung Biotechnology Inc, a subsidiary of United Therapeutics, which is run by the noted transhumanist Martine Rothblatt. This is what Venter was quoted as saying at SynBioBeta 2014:

"We are re-engineering the pig, changing its genetic code. If we succeed with rewriting the pig genome, we will have replacement organs for those who need them."

That is not actually a novel idea. Lord Robert Winston, best known as a British fertility expert, explained the rationale to the London Telegraph in September 2008:

"Pigs' organs are the right size for human transplantation, and they work similarly to human organs. Of course this raises a moral problem, but it is much more ethical to use a pig to save a human life than to use it for relatively unnecessary meat eating."

Winston was frustrated by British and EU regulations ("bureaucracy" and undefined "red tape"), and moved his company Atazoa to Missouri to continue the work. He was confident in 2008 that "we can produce transplantable organs within two or three years … Within 10 years we think they could be available for hospitals." The goal was "humanised hearts, lungs or livers" and the process would be to modify sperm and breed the pigs to order. (Venter plans to adjust cells, which Lung Technologies will then use to create clones.)

Winston's transplant pigs were expected to cost £3 million (roughly $5 million), which perhaps explains the attraction. His Register of Interests at the House of Lords still shows him as a Director of Atazoa, but it now seems to have offices in Knightsbridge, London and has net liabilities of £2.6 million.

Winston estimated that only six genes would need to be altered; Venter has reduced that to five, in an experiment that, he says, created lungs that survived for a year in baboons. (Another team has created pig hearts that survived in baboons for a year, albeit not working as such but "grafted into the abdomen of an otherwise healthy baboon.")

Aside from the rejection problem, which is likely to remain substantial, there is the tricky matter that pigs can suffer from over 25 diseases that can infect humans, and new pig viruses (remember swine flu?) keep being discovered.

Ah, but synthetic biology has an answer for that: Modify people to be virus-proof!

Then the modified people can take organs from the modified pigs and … take lots of expensive drugs for the rest of their lives. Sounds like a winner.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: