Of Pigs and Stem Cell Research
June 5, 2014

Of Pigs And Stem Cell Research

One of my favorite shows to come out of Japan has been Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, a series about a group of specialized law-enforcement agents called “Section 9” that specializes in crimes relating to human augmentation/cybernetics in a not-too distant future. It is a very intelligent and well-designed show with a lot of appeal. Think CSI or NCIS with cyborgs. One episode in particular that I remember is when the team is investigating organ thefts and they go to an organ cloning facility where people would actually pay to have their genes “spliced” into hogs so that they could later use them for transplants should they ever need, an option for those not wanting to rely on higher maintenance cybernetics. I remember thinking just how bizarre, but oddly feasible, that premise sounded and I wondered if ever we might encounter something like that in our lifetimes.

We might.

In studying stem cell therapies, one of the biggest hurdles that researchers have been forced to try and overcome is the high probability of rejection in their patients. Thanks to a new study conducted by researchers at the University of Missouri, this issue may have been overcome through the use of pigs. Genetically modified pigs, that is, which have been altered so that they can host transplanted cells without any risk of rejection. For their study, the team used a special line of pigs developed by Randall Prather, an MU Curators Professor of reproductive physiology that were designed with specially altered immune systems that will accept all transplants or grafts without rejection. The team implanted human pluripotent stems cells into these modified pigs in order to test this capability, finding that these implanted cells were readily accepted by the pigs immune system.

According to Prather, “Many medical researchers prefer conducting studies with pigs because they are more anatomically similar to humans than other animals, such as mice and rats. Physically, pigs are much closer to the size and scale of humans than other animals, and they respond to health threats similarly. This means that research in pigs is more likely to have results similar to those in humans for many different tests and treatments.”

Thanks to this new method of testing stem cell therapies, new treatment methods should become easier to test, in a sense opening the door for many new exciting scientific opportunities. Reducing, or even eliminating, the chances for graft and implant rejection will allow many more projects to focus on the treatment being tested rather than on the trail and error of getting such a treatment to take.

Sure, these are not the organ-replacement pigs of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, but I would say that these modified treatment-testing pigs are still of great scientific importance. So, who knows? In the future, if ever your find yourself being treated with some sort of stem cell therapy, you might be being treated with a therapy that was first tested in one of these pigs.

Remember to say thank you before ordering your next plate of bacon.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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