Growing Human Organs Inside Pigs Could Save Lives, But the U.S. Won't Fund the Research

Pigs in a barn.

(© caspernhdk/Adobe)


The shortage of organs is a public health menace. Approximately 120,000 people in the U.S. need a lifesaving organ transplant. Of those, approximately 75,000 patients are on the active waiting list. Every day, nearly 20 individuals die from the shortage of organs in the United States.

Ethical concerns about human-animal chimera research might be dramatically overblown.

Scientists worldwide are developing new methods with potential to save countless patients in need of organs. Such approaches have tremendous potential, if only ethical and regulatory challenges could be overcome first.

One way that scientists are proposing to increase the number of transplantable organs is to produce organs from patient stem cells. Owed to their ability to grow limitlessly in the lab and form all tissue types, pluripotent stem cells from patients, in principle, could supply an infinite amount of cells that could potentially be transplanted back into patients. Unfortunately, all efforts to generate organs that can be transplanted into patients from stem cells to date have been unsuccessful.

A different encouraging approach is to generate patient organs inside livestock species, such as pigs. In the latest methods, interspecies chimeras – animals containing cells from both humans and animals – are generated by introducing human stem cells into early-stage animal embryos. Key genes essential for organ formation are disabled, allowing the introduced human stem cells to fill the empty space. In theory, this strategy will produce a human organ inside pigs or sheep.

Creating chimeras is not new in biology. Chimeras, or animals comprised of tissues from two different individuals, have already been deployed in research. Mouse chimeras are routinely used to create genetically engineered mice to study genes. The concept of generating human organs inside pigs or sheep comes from previous studies involving interspecies chimeras generated between mice and rats. Past experiments have demonstrated that it is possible to generate a rat pancreas inside a mouse.

Scientific and Ethical Obstacles

Unfortunately, chimera research has faced hurdles that have impeded progress. Of note, attempts to generate interspecies chimeras by several groups have failed. The results of these studies indicate that human cells appear unable to grow inside mouse embryos. The levels of human chimerism – the number of human cells inside the host animal embryo – appear too low to support any human organ generation.

Another obstacle is that chimera generation is ethically controversial. Some question the moral status of an animal that is comprised of human and animal cells. The most concerning question is whether human cells will contribute to the host animal's brain, potentially altering the cognition of the animal. These issues have prompted scientists to proceed very cautiously with chimera experiments. However, such concerns might be dramatically overblown. This is because the levels of human chimerism are too low to cause any significant change in animal brain function.

The ethical controversy has affected research policy in the United States. In the United States, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the major funding body of biomedical research, blocked funding for chimera research while ethical questions were considered. Later, it was proposed that a new review process would be instated for chimera research. However, no change in policy has actually happened. The restrictive NIH policy is a major barrier to chimera research progress because laboratories around the United States cannot obtain funding for it. Lifting the restrictions on NIH funding for chimera research would dramatically accelerate chimera research.

Nonetheless, despite the past and current hurdles that chimera research has faced, new advances are changing the landscape of chimera research.

It is time to lift restrictions on chimera research so that its promise can be fully realized.

Progress on the Horizon

Scientists are developing improved strategies to increase the numbers of cells in animal embryos to the point where it might be possible to generate a human organ in an animal. For example, it has been suggested that the human stem cells researchers have been using cannot grow in animals. Scientists have made advances in generating new types of human stem cells that might have an improved ability to form chimeras.

Additionally, scientists have identified some barriers responsible for the failure to generate chimeras. For example, preventing cell death and enhancing the ability of stem cells to compete with host animal tissues also improves the numbers of human cells to the point where human organs can be generated inside an animal.

Finally, a relaxation of regulatory hurdles in other countries has created a more permissive environment for human-animal interspecies chimera research. In March, the Japanese government approved the first such experiments that could comprise a new way of generating organs from patients for transplantation.

Additionally, in spite of the somewhat negative attention that chimera generation has received, the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) supports the new Japanese policies allowing chimera experiments. The ISSCR maintains that research involving the generation of chimeras should be permitted, as long as rigorous oversight and ethics review occur.

Chimera research has the potential to transform medicine. Of all the impediments, the NIH restrictions on funding remain the single most significant barrier. It is time to lift restrictions on chimera research so that its promise can be fully realized. One day, it might be possible to grow patient-specific organs inside of livestock animals such as pigs and sheep, saving thousands of human lives. But to change our current policy, the public, scientists, and bioethicists must first agree that this critical cause is worth fighting for.

Alejandro De Los Angeles
Alejandro De Los Angeles is a visiting researcher at Yale University. He has done research at several leading institutions, including Stanford, Yale, Columbia, and the Genome Institute of Singapore. A Connecticut native, he has published over 25 papers on stem cells and human-animal interspecies chimeras. Alejandro’s research has focused on identifying stem cells capable of forming interspecies chimeras. Recently, Alejandro discovered a new type of monkey pluripotent stem cell that might possess the capability of forming interspecies chimeras. He also showed that the same method works in human stem cells. De Los Angeles’s work has appeared in major scientific journals, including the top journal Nature. In addition to his scientific work in the laboratory, he also collaborates with bioethicists and recently co-edited a book on chimera research and ethics titled, “Chimera Research,” published by Springer Nature.
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David Kurtz making DNA sequencing libraries in his lab.

Photo credit: Florian Scherer

When David M. Kurtz was doing his clinical fellowship at Stanford University Medical Center in 2009, specializing in lymphoma treatments, he found himself grappling with a question no one could answer. A typical regimen for these blood cancers prescribed six cycles of chemotherapy, but no one knew why. "The number seemed to be drawn out of a hat," Kurtz says. Some patients felt much better after just two doses, but had to endure the toxic effects of the entire course. For some elderly patients, the side effects of chemo are so harsh, they alone can kill. Others appeared to be cancer-free on the CT scans after the requisite six but then succumbed to it months later.

"Anecdotally, one patient decided to stop therapy after one dose because he felt it was so toxic that he opted for hospice instead," says Kurtz, now an oncologist at the center. "Five years down the road, he was alive and well. For him, just one dose was enough." Others would return for their one-year check up and find that their tumors grew back. Kurtz felt that while CT scans and MRIs were powerful tools, they weren't perfect ones. They couldn't tell him if there were any cancer cells left, stealthily waiting to germinate again. The scans only showed the tumor once it was back.

Blood cancers claim about 68,000 people a year, with a new diagnosis made about every three minutes, according to the Leukemia Research Foundation. For patients with B-cell lymphoma, which Kurtz focuses on, the survival chances are better than for some others. About 60 percent are cured, but the remaining 40 percent will relapse—possibly because they will have a negative CT scan, but still harbor malignant cells. "You can't see this on imaging," says Michael Green, who also treats blood cancers at University of Texas MD Anderson Medical Center.

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Lina Zeldovich
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, Mosaic Science and other publications. She’s an alumna of Columbia University School of Journalism and the author of the upcoming book, The Other Dark Matter: The Science and Business of Turning Waste into Wealth, from Chicago University Press. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.


Reporter Michaela Haas takes Aptera's Sol car out for a test drive in San Diego, Calif.

Courtesy Haas

The white two-seater car that rolls down the street in the Sorrento Valley of San Diego looks like a futuristic batmobile, with its long aerodynamic tail and curved underbelly. Called 'Sol' (Spanish for "sun"), it runs solely on solar and could be the future of green cars. Its maker, the California startup Aptera, has announced the production of Sol, the world's first mass-produced solar vehicle, by the end of this year. Aptera co-founder Chris Anthony points to the sky as he says, "On this sunny California day, there is ample fuel. You never need to charge the car."

If you live in a sunny state like California or Florida, you might never need to plug in the streamlined Sol because the solar panels recharge while driving and parked. Its 60-mile range is more than the average commuter needs. For cloudy weather, battery packs can be recharged electronically for a range of up to 1,000 miles. The ultra-aerodynamic shape made of lightweight materials such as carbon, Kevlar, and hemp makes the Sol four times more energy-efficient than a Tesla, according to Aptera. "The material is seven times stronger than steel and even survives hail or an angry ex-girlfriend," Anthony promises.

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Michaela Haas
Michaela Haas, PhD, is an award-winning reporter and author, most recently of Bouncing Forward: The Art and Science of Cultivating Resilience (Atria). Her work has been published in the New York Times, Mother Jones, the Huffington Post, and numerous other media. Find her at www.MichaelaHaas.com and Twitter @MichaelaHaas!