One small step for man, one giant leap backward for pigs and other lab animals

Lately, I’ve been feeling optimistic about the field of medicine. Animal testing is slowly, surely being phased out, and scientists are working on a host of advances like lab-grown organs and organs on chips that could reduce our reliance on pigs, rats, and other lab animals even further.

So, it’s a little disheartening to read this:

Researchers at Harvard University and the nearby biotech startup eGenesis used CRISPR-Cas9, a new gene-editing method that replaces unwanted segments of DNA with “desirable” ones, to allow pig embryos to develop without harboring pig viruses that are harmful to humans.

The new research is detailed in a study published in the journal Science on Thursday. In it, the scientists show how they were able to generate 37 designer pigs without active porcine endogenous retroviruses (PERVs) that can be transmitted to humans and are potentially deadly.

The study further increases hope that xenotransplantation — the use of animal organs for human transplant — could one day be used to assist with a shortage of crucial human organs like hearts, livers, and lungs.

But wait, it gets worse:

Before these kinds of transplants are allowed, other genetic changes may need to be made to pigs, and regulators will require tests using lab primates prior to using genetically engineered organs in humans. [emphasis mine]

Look, I get that people need medicine and organs. I get that. It just seems that with all the technology at our disposal, we could find a better way of doing it. Didn’t anyone read Never Let Me Go?

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