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At a secret farm outside of the Twin Cities in Minnesota, a pen full of genetically modified pigs are helping researchers find cures to cancer.
Advancements in gene editing technology have allowed St. Paul start-up Recombinetics to mimic human conditions in pigs, like Alheizmer's and cancer, so pharmaceutical companies can more quickly get drugs to the market.
"Pigs are 98 percent similar to humans," said Recombinetics' President and CEO Tammy Lee Stanoch. "While researchers have been able to cure cancer thousands of times in mice models, it still hasn't been solved yet in humans."
Using farm pigs for clinical trials is nothing new, but by using a gene modifying technology called TALENs, the company has created pigs that have human-like traits to improve the outcomes of trials. Stanoch said their pig model could cut the time it takes to find treatments for diseases in half, potentially saving millions in research costs.
Dr. Adrienne Watson, Recombinetics' senior research scientist, explained that because mice are so different from humans anatomically, years of research often go to waste. She is currently working on two pigs that they modified to be born with a common genetic disorder called Neurofibromatosis, or NF1. It's a disease that affects one in 3,000 children, and often leads to cancer. She was amazed how similar the symptoms and tumors in their edited pigs were to those of humans.
"We've learned so much from these trials," Dr. Watson said. "We've learned better ways to dose patients … as well as to see early on if the drug is being effective."
The promise of these pigs goes beyond drugs, however. Recombinetics is also working on growing human organs and tissues in pigs that could then be transplanted into people in need.
A patient could have a personal pig to grow tissue from their own stem cells, greatly reducing the rate of rejection.
"You would be able to use your skin cell, grow a product and then schedule your surgery at some point in the future," Stanoch said. "This will provide an amazing breakthrough and has the ability to save 22 people every day who are dying waiting for an organ transplant."
Stanoch said the company is just a few years away from being able to grow human pancreas, liver and cardiac cells in pigs. They are also close to using a pig as a human blood bank.
"So these aren't ideas that are wild and ten years off," she said. "This is the here and now."
Recombinetics is also working toward improving agriculture processes with precision gene editing.
For example, the company has already found success with their genetically modified hornless cattle. From a single cell in a petri dish, the company created modified cattle, which eliminated the need for a common and painful practice of dairy farmers to remove the horns. To cross-breed cattle to be born without horns can take decades, and result in lower milk productivity along the way.
"We are able to precisely edit traits in animals that provide animal welfare benefits or productivity benefits for that animal," Stanoch said.
So if Recombinetics can edit a hornless cow, and can edit a pig to have cancer, couldn't they just edit a human to be born without disease?
Dr. Watson says that's not a goal. "Recombinetics is not in the business to be editing human cells."
Recombinetics has raised $31 million from private investors since the company was founded in 2008.