There are nearly 2 million people on the organ transplant waiting list around the world. Some of the original CRISPR – a modern, advanced gene editing tool – engineers think that pig organs could be the saving grace.
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EGenesis is a Boston and Leverkusen, Germany-based biotech company using cells, livers, hearts and lungs from other animals to create human-compatible organs.
The startup just raised $100 million in Series B funding led by Fresenius Medical Care Ventures (FMCV). New investors include Leaps by Bayer and Wellington Partners, and returning investors include ARCH Venture Partners, Biomatics Capital, Alta Partners, and Khosla Ventures.
Egenesis’ total known venture capital funding is now $138 million, per the company.
Now, let’s get back to the pigs.
Xenotransplants, And Rejection
The new round will be used by eGenesis to further experiment with finding an alternative source of human-compatible organs, as well as work on roadblocks to say, put a pig’s heart in a human. That process is called xenotransplants, a transplant between species.
Historically, pig-to-human transplants have been a hopeful part of our future, due to the size and physiology of the former meeting the later. Per Time, heart valves from pigs are already used to replace damaged or diseased valves from people.
However, according to co-founder Dr. Luhan Yang, pig-to-human transplants more broadly have been a goal of scientists for a century, but little to no progress has been made.
In a TED talk, Yang pointed to rejection of organs and viruses as roadblocks to the process. The porcine endogenous retrovirus (PERV) has the potential to bring a viral epidemic to humans if not resolved.
One way to get rid of this potentially detrimental virus is to rely on gene-editing technologies so that the potential transfer works without diseases or infections. As mentioned before, eGenesis’ founders Yang and George Church were CRISPR, a gene-editing tool, and genomics “pioneers” per the company’s website. In 2015, eGenesis was highlighted for encoding 62 PERV genes and producing a live pig. In August 2017, eGenesis’ Church (a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School), “generated more than a dozen pigs that were bred without certain viruses that had made many of their organs unusable for human transplant,” according to Time.
Ethical concerns are clear with this company. Creating a perfect pig in a petri dish just for its organs can be troubling to some. However, for now, the company is resting its business, and future, on potentially upending a transplantation industry that could save millions of lives.
Illustration: Li-Anne Dias