Pigs: The Most Promising Source for Regenerative Medicine

An Unlikely Source of Clues for Regenerative Medicine
An Unlikely Source of Clues for Regenerative Medicine Pixabay

We are now in touching distance of realising the dream of regenerative medicine. To advance progress, scientists are searching for clues among a wide variety of sources, with analysis of domestic pigs by BGI Group laying the groundwork for the use of pigs in regenerative medicine.

The shortage of organ donors is a pressing medical challenge globally. According to data from the Health Resource & Service Administration , 17 people die each day in the US while waiting for an organ transplant. Similarly in the UK,  429 people died while waiting for a transplant in the past year,  and a further 644 were removed from the transplant list because they were deemed too unwell to survive surgery.

As pressures on organ transplants mount, scientists are increasingly turning to new technologies and techniques to meet demand. Pigs are regarded as the most promising source of alternative organs  due to their high similarities with humans in physiology, anatomy, genetics, metabolism, organ size and availability.

Most recently, scientists  discovered a way to restore the function of pig organs after their hearts had stopped beating. Raising hopes for organ transplantation, the study provides vital insights into preserving organs post-mortem, which could make more donated organs available.

Earlier this year, the frontiers of organ transplantation were pushed ever further with the aid of pigs, when David Bennett , from   the US  who suffered from heart failure, received a heart transplant from a genetically modified pig. Unfortunately, David died two months after receiving the pig heart without evidence of typical rejection. But infection of porcine cytomegalovirus is one potential cause, according to report in the NEJM . Nonetheless, the study represented a major breakthrough in xenotransplantation (a process of transferring cells, tissues and organs between species).

Once more, pigs have proven an invaluable source of insights for tackling organ shortage, with BGI Group’s   new  study  of domestic pigs helping to realise the dream of regenerative medicine.

Heralded as a new therapeutic paradigm, regenerative medicine seeks to repair the body and cure disease by developing new tissues and organs as the old ones wear out. While seemingly futuristic, regenerative medicine is rooted in existing practices, such as growing new skin for burn victims, or priming the body’s own immune system with vaccines to fight disease.

Regenerative medicine may build on existing knowledge, yet it is impossible to understate the revolution in healthcare that it will unleash, with developments in this field opening the door for the regrowth, repair and replacement of damaged or diseased organs, which could help tackle the rising shortage of donated organs.

BGI Group’s new  research, published in Nature Communications , provides first body-wide single-cell transcriptome atlas of 222,526 cells across 20 tissues and organs of the domestic pig.

Examining pigs at a cellular level, the study unveils clues for regenerative medicine by pinpointing the way the transcriptome informs how an organism grows and develops – the transcriptome being a complete set of RNA, short-lived messenger molecules which codes for protein production in response to external factors.

In other words, the research unpacks how a person’s genetic make-up shapes the way they grow, develop and age, paving the way for understanding how the body could be repaired by developing new organs as the old ones wear out.

“ Our understanding of tissue and organ functions at a cellular level is being transformed by single cell technology,” said Yonglun Luo , the lead author of the study from BGI-Research. “In this study we shared our initial pig atlas results comprising single cell transcriptome data from over 200,000 pig cells. This large data set helps explain tissues  and shared functions between the tissues, as well as  broadens our understanding of organ development and function.”

“The pig genome and transcriptome research are very much lagging behind, compared to humans”, added Yonglun Luo. “We are in the process of generating a substantially improved pig genome, as well as revealing the complete pig cell and tissue landscape using the new high-resolution spatial transcriptome technologies developed by BGI Group.”  

In the wake of advancements such as these, it is clear the idea of regenerative medicine has evolved from a question of “if” to a question of “when”. As David Gardiner  writes, a developmental biologist at the University of California, “Everybody now is assuming that (regenerative medicine) is just a matter of time.”

The rate of change has been exponential. In 1954, the kidney was the first organ to be transplanted successfully. Now, we are now moving into a previously inconceivable era of regenerative medicine. Interestingly, it has been the study of pigs which has gleaned such vital insights – from helping to preserve organs post-mortem, to offering promising alternative organ donors, to now even helping pave the way to regenerative medicine.

Join the Discussion