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.”
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.
Prather gives a tour of the “Wall of Pork and Beef,” which highlights some of the important research projects on which he has collaborated over the years.