Reengineering Life

A Startup Is Making Thousands of Gene-Edited Pigs Because Humans Need Their Organs

Scientists are using CRISPR to address the global organ shortage

Emily Mullin
Future Human
Published in
5 min readOct 20, 2020
Photo illustration source: Damien Meyer/Getty Images

Reengineering Life is a series from Future Human about the astonishing ways genetic technology is changing humanity and the world around us.

More than 109,000 people are currently waiting to get a donor organ in the United States. Last year, however, only 39,718 total transplants were performed. Thousands of people will die before they can get the lifesaving transplants they need.

To meet this need, some researchers are attempting to genetically engineer pigs to make their organs suitable for people. Previous efforts to transplant whole animal organs into people have failed, but the gene-editing tool CRISPR could bring the idea closer to reality.

Pig organs aren’t naturally compatible with human bodies. To make them a better fit, scientists at a Chinese biotech startup co-founded by Harvard genetics pioneer George Church, PhD, have used CRISPR to make 42 simultaneous modifications across 13 genes in pigs. The company, Qihan Biotech, has been experimenting with different edits since its formation in 2017. This latest version, which it dubs “pig 3.0,” is the most extensively edited yet.

The edits are meant to prevent immune rejection, blood clotting, bleeding, and infection in transplant recipients. The idea is to trick a person’s immune system into recognizing a transplanted pig organ as a human one. The company reported its results in the journal Natural Biomedical Engineering on September 21.

“This is a tour de force,” Jay Fishman, MD, associate director of the transplant program at Massachusetts General Hospital, who was not involved in the study, told Future Human. “We have a shortage of organs for transplantation. We now have the tools to manipulate animal organs in ways to try to make these organs work.”

Given their similar organ size and function to humans, pigs have long been seen as a promising source for human organ transplants. But there are two major hurdles to putting pig organs into people: rapid immune rejection and the possibility of infection.



Emily Mullin
Future Human

Former staff writer at Medium, where I covered biotech, genetics, and Covid-19 for OneZero, Future Human, Elemental, and the Coronavirus Blog.