Growing not just human organs but organs from your own skin cells inside pigs in Japan for the ultimate solution to organ replacement.
Inside the white pig embryo, the gene that carries the instructions for developing the animal’s pancreas has been “switched off”.
The Japanese team then introduce stem cells from a black pig into the embryo. What they have discovered is that as the pig develops, it will be normal except for its pancreas, which will be genetically a black pig’s.
But this is just the first step.
In a lab at Tokyo University Professor Hiro Nakauchi is taking the next one, and this is even more astonishing.
Prof Nakauchi takes skin cells from an adult brown rat. He then uses gene manipulation to change these adult skin cells into what are called “iPS” cells. The amazing thing about induced pluripotent stem cells is that they have many of the same characteristics as embryonic stem cells. In other words, they can develop into any part of the animal’s body.
IPS cells were first created in 2006 by Japanese medical researcher Dr Shinya Yamanaka. In 2012, he won the Nobel Prize for his discovery.
In his lab, Prof Nakauchi has succeeded in using these iPS cells to grow a brown rat pancreas inside a white mouse.
So why is all of this so important?
The ultimate objective of this research is to get human organs to grow inside pigs. By itself, that would be a massive breakthrough for science. But what Prof Nakauchi is trying to achieve goes further. He is hoping to develop a technique to take skin cells from a human adult and change them in to iPS cells. Those iPS cells can then be injected into a pig embryo.
This is one of the holy grails of medical research: the ability to reproduce a human organ that is genetically identical to the person who needs it. It could mean an end to donor waiting lists, and an end to problems of organ rejection.
But there are many potential obstacles ahead. The first is that pigs and humans are only distantly related. It is one thing to get a black pig pancreas to grow inside a white pig, quite another to get a human pancreas to do the same. Prof Nakauchi is confident it can be done. He thinks it will take at least five years, but admits it could take much longer.
The other problem is getting approval. In Japan, it is illegal to make human-animal hybrids. Prof Nakauchi is pushing for a change in the law. But if that does not happen, he may have to move his research to America.