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.”
We see that as humans we are different from other modern primates, although we don't know exactly how that came to be. Unlocking this mystery has been Anthropology professor Carol Ward's life's work. While the fossil record is sketchy at times, it is crucial in estimating the chronology of certain key acquisitions of modern humans, be it walking on two feet, developing big brains, changing their diet, or changing their tool-making behavior. Working with fossils, Ward seeks to answer the bigger question—why did those changes occur?
Prather describes how his life experiences led him to a career in animal sciences that spans more than twenty years and focuses specifically on the contribution of pigs to biomedicine.
Prather talks about his work with genetic modification. The modified swine are marked by a green florescent glow on their snouts. Such modifications on the pigs could positively impact agriculture and medicine.
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 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.
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.