On 22nd August, Dr James Lowe, a postdoctoral research fellow in Science Technology and Innovation Studies, is going to talk at the Fringe Festival about the problems and challenges associated with making pig-to-human organ transplants work. This is not his main area of research. So how did he come to this fascinating topic? James explains his journey below…
All roads lead to xenotransplantation
My research is on the history of genomics; pig genomics more specifically. Genomics is the science of gathering data on the genomes – the collective DNA sequences – of organisms and using that data to try and understand them better. Genomic research usually involves the sequencing of DNA to discern the order of the chemical elements that make it up – known by the initials A, T, C and G – in certain parts of the chromosomes into which the organism’s DNA is packed. Researchers use this data to identify and locate genes, variations in the DNA sequence, and other interesting features.
Over the course of my work on the history of this, it has become increasingly apparent that a lot of the genomics work concerns genes and regions of DNA that are associated with the immunology of the pig, which are part of the immune system that ensures that potentially dangerous bacteria and viruses are identified and expelled or destroyed.
In part, this is because the areas of the genome associated with immune response are densely packed with genes, and that there is a lot of variability in the sequences in that region between individuals and between species. This is the reason behind the functioning of the immune system in the first place. There needs to be sufficient variation between individuals to ensure that the immune system is able to distinguish cells and molecules that belong to its own body, and those that do not.
It is also because the immune system is implicated in all kinds of problems that geneticists from a variety of backgrounds want to help tackle. These may include trying to understand variability in resistance to various kinds of disease, with a view to developing genetic tests that can be used to inform programmes of selective breeding to reduce disease susceptibility, and therefore improve profits as well as welfare standards.
The considerable amount of research in this area has provided researchers the means by which to understand the immune rejection of organs better. In my show, I will discuss this, and also how genomics underpins the possible technical solutions through this, by providing a map that genome editors can use to selectively delete and insert genes in the pig’s DNA, to improve the potential that organs can be moved from the pig into the human and thrive in their new environment.
Just as my work on the history of genomics led me down the road to xenotransplantation, so do many research pathways converge on this exciting but terribly complicated endeavour. This reflects how tricky the enterprise is, just as it reflects the multiple ways in which we must understand biology in order to successfully transform it for our own purposes. It means that we cannot assume a single breakthrough will cut through all of the obstacles that prevent the successful widespread implementation of xenotransplantation, but must consider the multiple biological, technical, social, ethical and regulatory factors that all must be confronted.
If you are interested in seeing how viruses, irradiated Czechs, sheds in the French countryside, bacterial enzymes and tinkerers help us to appreciate the actual and potential roles of pigs in ensuring ill people get the organs they need, come along to find out – and join in the discussion.
James’ show, Will Pigs Save Our Bacon?, is on at New Town Theatre, August 22 @ 1:30pm – 2:30pm. You can book tickets here.