When most people think of pigs, they think of messy and muddy, or they think of bacon, but they don’t also realize that pigs are incredibly common in biomedical research. In class, we discussed the use of pig heart valves in heart transplants. When human patients need a new heart valve, they can choose between using a mechanical valve or a tissue valve, which likely comes from a pig or cow donor. While the mechanical valves are more durable, they do require the use of blood thinner medications, which tissue valves do not require.
But this is not the only reason that we rely on pigs in the biomedical field. Pigs are also a common test subject for CRISPR/Cas9 research, which is a genome-editing tool that allows researchers to insert and change sequences of nucleotides. There are several common aims of this kind of research. One is to create pigs that are resistant to certain diseases, such as influenza or porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome. This would increase food security by preventing infectious diseases in pigs that are bred for human consumption and create a more sustainable pigs market (Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News, 2017).
(Source: Norrie Russell/The Roslin Institute)
CRISPR technology is just being used to make disease resistant pigs. It is also being used to breed pigs that can grow human organs for transplant. There is a large shortage of donor organs around the world and the hope is that one day we can use animal organs that are human compatible. The main focus of the research is to eliminate parts of the pig genome that result in a human immune attack on the organs. There is a large immune reaction when foreign organs are transplanted, so scientists are looking to alter the immune systems in pigs and humanize their organs (Weintraub, 2017). Pigs are also being used to insert pluripotent human cells in hopes to grow humanized organs. This has created a large ethical debate about whether creating these partially human chimeric animals with “denigrate human dignity and blur the line between what is human and what is not” (Begley, 2017). There should definitely be large ethical concerns about how to properly treat these animals and what kinds of rights they should be afforded. While with current techniques there are a small number of humans cells for every pigs cell, and no evidence of human cells in the brain, but this kind of research is still leading in a very questionable direction (Begley, 2017).
There is also lots of fear about what people can create with this kind of technology. There have been several Indiegogo funding campaigns advertising DIY CRISPR kits, causing many nations to call for strengthened laws about synthetic biology (Kirksey, 2016). But this isn’t the first time that artists may have shown interest in manipulating biology and creating chimeric creatures. We have mentioned in class several times Eduardo Kac and his many pieces that involve this. In “Natural History of the Enigma” Kac created a chimeric flower that contains his on of his Immunoglobulin genes, creating a new species that he calls “Edunia.” By creating these “plantimals” Kac shows just how similar all art is. But while this chimeric flower may not seem like that big of a deal, where will techniques like this take us in the future?
Begley, Sharon “First human-pig chimeras created, sparking hopes for transplantable organs – and debate” Stat, 2017, https://www.statnews.com/2017/01/26/first-chimera-human-pig/
“CRISPR Pigs Make Disease-Resistant Bacon” Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News, 2017, http://www.genengnews.com/gen-news-highlights/crispr-pigs-make-disease-resistant-bacon/81253933
Kac, Eduardo “Natural History of the Enigma”
Kirksey, Eben “Who Is Afraid of CRISPR Art?” Engagement, 2016, https://aesengagement.wordpress.com/2016/07/19/who-is-afraid-of-crispr-art/
Weintraub, Karen “CRISPR May Speed Pig-to-Human Transplants” MIT Technology Review, 2017, https://www.technologyreview.com/s/603857/crispr-may-speed-pig-to-human-transplants/