IncredibleWTF?Animals

Published 2018-02-19
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A hybrid of a human and a pig has been created in a laboratory...

In a remarkable and controversial feat, scientists announced some time ago that they have created the first successful human-animal hybrids. The project demonstrates that human cells can be introduced into a non-human organism, it can survive and even grow inside a host animal, in this case, pigs. This biomedical breakthrough was long a dream and a dilemma for scientists hoping to address a critical shortage of organ donors.

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Every ten minutes, a person is added to the waiting list for organ transplants. And every day, 22 people on that list die without the organ they need. What if, instead of trusting a generous donor, a personalized organ could grow inside an animal? That is now one step closer to reality, according to an international team of researchers led by the Salk Institute reports in the journal Cell. The team created what is known scientifically as a chimera: an organism that contains cells from two different species.

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In the past, chimeras created of humans and animals were out of reach. Such experiments are currently ineligible for public funding in the United States (so far, the team has relied on private donors for the project). Public opinion has also hampered the creation of organisms that are partly human, partly animal. But for the study's author, Jun Wu, we just need to look at the mythical chimeras from a different perspective.

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"In ancient civilizations, chimeras were associated with God," he says, "and our ancestors thought that the chimerical form could protect humans." In a sense, that's what the team hopes one day will do the hybrids between humans and animals. There are two ways to make a chimera. The first is to introduce the organs of one animal into another, a proposition of risk because the immune system of the host can cause the organ to be rejected. The other method is to start at the embryonic level, introducing the cells of one animal into the embryo of another and letting them grow together in a hybrid.

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It sounds strange, but it is an ingenious way to eventually solve a series of biological problems with organs grown in the laboratory. When scientists discovered that stem cells, which can produce any type of body tissue, they saw that they seemed to contain endless scientific promises. But it is difficult to convince those cells to grow in the right types of tissues and organs. The cells must survive in Petri dishes. Scientists have to use a kind of "scaffold" to make sure that the organs grow in the correct ways.

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And often, patients must undergo painful and invasive procedures to harvest the tissues needed to start the process. At first, Juan Carlos Izpisúa Belmonte, professor of the Laboratory of Gene Expression of the Salk Institute, thought that the concept of using a host embryo to grow organs seemed quite simple. On the other hand, Belmonte and more than 40 collaborators took four years to discover how to make a chimera of a human and an animal. For this, the team followed the previous chimera research conducted on mice and rats.

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Other scientists had already discovered how to grow the rat's pancreatic tissue inside a mouse. That team announced that mouse pancreas grown inside rats successfully treated diabetes when parts of the healthy organs were transplanted into diseased mice. Salk's team took the concept a step further, using the genome editing tool called CRISPR to hack mouse blastocysts, the precursors of embryos. There, they eliminated the genes that mice need to grow certain organs. When they introduced rat stem cells capable of producing those organs, those cells flourished.

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However, while the embryo was only allowed to develop for a few days, the genesis of this early-stage creature relives an uncomfortable debate over whether animal-human hybrids are horrifying monsters waiting to happen. We still do not know how these early-stage fetal cells are translated into human parts inside a pig. Some areas of human cells, such as the stomach, are less disturbing than if they materialize, for example, in the brain. However, pigs have a remarkable resemblance to humans. Although they take less time for gestation, their organs are much like ours.

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Not that these similarities made the task easier. The team discovered that, in order to introduce human cells into pigs without killing them, they had to get the right moment. "We treat three different types of human cells, representing essentially three different times in the development process," Jun Wu explained. Through trial and error, they learned that naive pluripotent stem cells with unlimited potential do not survive as well as those that had developed a little more. When the human cells were injected into the pig embryos, they survived. They were then placed in adult pigs, which carried the embryos between three and four weeks before being extracted and analyzed.

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The next big step is to find out if it is possible to increase the number of human cells that embryos can tolerate. The current method is a beginning, but it is not yet clear if that obstacle can be overcome. Belmonte agrees, noting that it could take years to use the process to create functional human organs. The technique could be used much earlier as a way to study the development of the human embryo and understand the disease. And that knowledge in real time could be as valuable as the ability to grow an organ. Even at this early stage, Chen calls the work a breakthrough: "There are other steps to follow," he acknowledges. "But it is intriguing. Very intriguing."

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Source: News.nationalgeographic.com

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