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.”
Prather has contributed to research associated with modifying genes to produce healthy bacon. In a study involving the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Medicine, researchers transferred a gene known as fat-1 to fetal pig cells. The fat-1 gene creates an enzyme that converts omega-6 fatty acids to omega-3 fatty acids, the type of fatty acid known to reduce heart disease and cancer. As a collaborator in the research, Prather cloned the pig fetal cells containing the gene that makes omega-3 fatty acids and creates pigs with their their own omega-3 fatty acids.