St. Paul Company Envisions 'Personal Pig' for Human Organ Transplants

November 15, 2016 09:14 AM

Could the Twin Cities be the new frontier of genetic discovery?

That's the vision of researchers at one St. Paul-based company, who believe all the pieces are in place to do things like increase the world's food supply, and cure diseases like Alzheimer's and cancer.


Another breakthrough this company is working on could give people who need transplants their own personal pig to grow an organ. 

Our morning news anchor Chris Egert was given access to several facilities that few have ever seen, and started our search for answers in San Francisco, California.  

READ and WATCH more about this special report, including the difference between gene editing and gene modification, here

About an hour northeast of San Francisco, at a nondescript research farm at the University of California, Davis, you'll find two very important cattle. Their beginnings go back a few years, to some tiny little cells in a St. Paul lab. Those cells were implanted into two cattle embryos, and then those eggs were put into surrogate cows to be born without actual parents. The cattle are cloned.

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS was there when Tad Sonstegard, a researcher for St. Paul-based Recombinetics, saw the cattle in person for the first time. 

With a smile on his face, Sonstegard told us, "It's great! To see something where we have been able to use our technology to make something better than it was before."

Recombinetics used a process called gene editing to be able to develop the cattle to be born without horns, a scientific breakthrough that is so noteworthy, a year ago these two were on the cover of the New York Times

De-horning methods are viewed by many as inhumane. The founder of Recombinetics said he knew that he could do something about it, in his lab.

"It's a pretty compelling problem," Recombinetics Chief Scientific Officer and Executive Chair Scott Fahrenkrug said. "There are 5 million cattle a year in the U.S. that have their horns taken off.  It's not a nice process."

The cows that provide milk for your family are subjected to de-horning every year.

Hornless or polled cattle already exist, but cattle that are cross bred using traditional methods aren't as good at producing milk. Recombinetics researchers would like to one day see their gene edited cattle in barns across the United States. 

Sonstegard calls them happier cattle.

"The producer no longer has to dehorn his calves at birth. The food distributor knows the animals were treated humanely in producing the milk. And the same thing with the consumers. Most importantly, the animals don't suffer at all."

Recombinetics have also also gene edited double muscled cattle that can produce between 7 and 30 percent more meat. They can also gene edit cows that produce more milk, and cattle that thrive in hot climates, when most breeds don't. 

Fahrenkrug describes the process as using a molecular scissors to make edits to a genetic book of life. 

"That book encodes all the instructions for what makes you. In gene editing, we have the ability to go to the right volume, of that encyclopedia of life, the right page, the right paragraph, the right sentence, to change exactly the letter we want to change," explained Fahrenkrug.

While the Food and Drug Administration hasn't ruled yet on where it stands on gene edited animals, the Recombinetics founder says what his company is doing is not the same controversial process as genetic modification. 

"We really try to avoid this being misperceived as a GMO in the sense that people are used to. There already is legislation that differentiates the safe labeling act. This is not putting a plant gene into an animal, or a mouse gene into a fish, this is changing a letter in the book of life of one cattle to look like the book of life of another cattle. It is perfectly safe, we've been eating animals with this letter in their book of life for thousands of years... even longer, some of these traits."

Cattle aren't the only livestock Recombinetics is working with, which brought us to a top secret farm west of the Twin Cities. There we met Recombinetics researcher Adrienne Watson, who said she believes their gene editing methods with pigs are a quicker and less expensive way to allow them to develop drugs and medical devices to treat chronic diseases like cancer, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer's. 

Watson said she is amazed to see it all play out in front of her.

"Knowing these animals can serve as surrogates, actually help therapeutics and eventually cures for these diseases, this is amazing."

The company also sees a day when in the long term pigs could be used to provide human patients with cells, tissues, even organs. 

Recombinetics gave 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS a specific timeline for when this work could begin.  

"We could be into clinical trials within six years for various organs and tissues," Fahrenkrug revealed.

For example, a Type 1 diabetic in need of a transplant could have his or her stem cells used to grow a pancreas for transplant inside his or her own personal pig, and dramatically reduce the chances of rejection.

Fahrenkrug admits that they are the ideas of science fiction.

"Yeah, I can't really believe it, to be honest, I've waited my entire career for a moment like this."


Chris Egert

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