In a back corner of the University of Missouri’s medical building, a few floors above the hospital and tucked away to the right, Habib Zaghouani watches a cellular war. He has been up there for seven years, with an army of graduate students and a colony of mice, trying to understand why our bodies attack us and how we can make them stop.
Take a good, hard mental image of a long line of people stretched for blocks. If you expand the line to roughly 100,000, this is the number of people waiting for an organ transplant. The imbalanced patient-to-organ ratio leaves many to die while waiting their turn. In response, some researchers try to tap into animal organs to save human lives, but those organs do not always work.
Research in the University of Missouri’s Division of Animal Sciences may help solve this medical debacle by using genetic modification. When an organ goes from one animal to another (like to a human), preexisting antibodies in the human bind to the organ’s sugar molecules and kill the organ, making it useless. “When you take a pig cell and transfer it to a human, the molecule is immediately recognized as foreign,” explains MU’s Animal Science Professor, Randall Prather. “Within minutes you’ll get hyperacute rejection, and the cells will be destroyed.”
Habib Zaghouani, along with his team of graduate and post-doctoral fellows, is working on four different projects in the lab. The first examines why newborn babies are so susceptible to infection, the second tries to understand how the immune system’s memory works, while the third and fourth aim at developing treatments for specific diseases: type I diabetes and multiple sclerosis.
A fundamental medical challenge for species-to-species organ donations involves sugar molecules that are recognized as foreign by preexisting antibodies. Prather and his team have modified pigs by removing the sugar molecule on the surface of their organs and then transferred those organs into baboons. So far the pig kidneys have not caused the kind of hyperacute rejection seen in similar organ transplants.