Egenesis, a startup that’s using the gene-editing tool CRISPR to make pig organs viable for transplants into people, just raised $US38 million.
The company, which launched back in 2015 and is co-founded by Harvard geneticist George Church and 30-year old Luhan Yang, wants to knock out certain genes in pigs that could cause diseases or organ rejection in humans, making it possible for those pig organs to be transplanted.
The round is co-led by Biomatics Capital and ARCH Venture Partners, and joined by Khosla Ventures, Alta Partners, Alexandria Equities, Heritage Provider Network, among others.
According to the US Health Resources and Services Administration, there are more than 118,000 people in the US who are on the waiting list for organ transplants. In 2016, there were a record-high 33,500 transplants, but an estimated 22 people die each day waiting on a new organ. Getting organs from animals — particularly from pigs, whose organs tend to be close in size and work similarly to human organs — could be the solution to that shortage.
But there are two huge hurdles to getting animal-organ transplants to successfully work in humans — a process known as xenotransplantation. The first, Egenesis chief scientific officer Luhan Yang told Business Insider, is the virology, or the fact that pigs carry genes encoded with viruses that could transmit disease to humans.
The second hurdle, she said, is the immunology. Since the pig organ would be foreign to the body, the person’s immune system might try to kick it out, rejecting the organ. Those proved too challenging for a slew of researchers going after this subject in the 1990s.
Ideally, CRISPR will help tackle those issues “that were insurmountable before,” Yang said. “We think the advancement of gene editing can help us address both of them,” Yang said.
Julie Sunderland, managing director at Biomatics Capital, told Business Insider that the gene-editing addition, in combination with the company’s consideration for all of the other complex steps that go into actually transplanting pig organs into humans, was the reason the team chose to invest.
“It really is a breakthrough,” Sunderland said.
How Egenesis’ process works
- Egenesis wants to build genetically modified pig clones that tackle both the virology and immunology challenges that come with taking a pig organ and putting it in a human.
- To do that, you first genetically modify pig cells.
- From those cells you can clone pigs that grow up, at which point you can take the organs from them. Right now, Yang said, Egenesis is at the beginning of that pig production step.
- Once that’s complete, the company can test the pig to make sure the organs are safe and effective, and eventually move the pig organs into clinical trials.
Egenesis isn’t the only company trying to harness animal organs for use in humans. United Therapeutics is also going after xenotransplantation, while others are taking a different approach of trying to grow human organs in pigs. Yang said the number of companies starting to work on this again is good news.
“I think it’s a good sign that the field has been revived,” she told Business Insider.
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