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University Breeds Genome-Edited Pigs

Piglets

(Beahohl/Pixabay)

25 March 2014. Veterinary researchers at University of Maryland successfully bred 18 pigs with their genomes edited by a technique that prominent geneticists recently called for strict guidelines. The university today announced birth of the baby pigs bred by animal sciences professor Bhanu Telugu and faculty research assistant Ki-Eun Park.

Telugu and Park applied the technique known as CRISPR, short for  clustered, regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. CRISPR is adapted from a natural process used by bacteria to protect against attack by viruses, where a protein that deactivates or replaces genes binds to targeted RNA molecules generated by the human genome. The RNA molecules then guide the editing protein to specific genes needing repair.

The Maryland team is using a different approach to CRISPR. Instead of sending a protein to edit the genome, Telugu and Park are modifying nucleotides — biochemical building blocks in DNA and RNA — in the pigs’ genomes. The university says Telugu and Park and are pursuing a patent on this CRISPR technique.

Last week, in a statement published in Science, a group of leading genomics researchers, including some working directly in CRISPR, called for scientists, companies, and physicians to develop ethics guidelines for the use of CRISPR, particularly in research on human diseases. “Assuming the safety and efficacy of the technology can be ensured” said the statement, “a key point of discussion is whether the treatment or cure of severe diseases in humans would be a responsible use of genome engineering, and if so, under what circumstances.” A concern of the writers is that without a responsible road map for CRISPR, a public backlash against the technique could put a halt to the work done so far and prevent further applications in medicine.

Telugu and Park say their research is aimed for improving the welfare of animals, not humans. In September 2014, Telugu’s team received a $1.6 million grant from National Institute of Food and Agriculture, part of U.S. Department of Agriculture, to apply genome editing to improving the resistance of pigs to influenza. The Maryland researchers are studying ways of deactivating genetic receptors in pigs for the flu virus that in the past damaged herds, and led to swine flu pandemics among humans.

But research in pig genomes may still have implications for humans, since pigs have some organs and functions, such as in the digestive system that are similar to humans. Telugu and Park hope to extend their research beyond influenza to other conditions faced by humans, such as obesity and diabetes.

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