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The Early Days of Organ Farming Are a Bit Gnarly

University of California, Davis researchers announce the disappointing results of their implantation of human stem cells in pigs.

Pig embryo implanted with human cells (JUN WU)


In June 2016, scientists from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies at University of California, Davis announced that they’d ambitiously implanted human cells into a whopping 1,500 proto-embryonic pig blastocysts. They were attempting to create a hybrid, a “chimera,” that would be a pig with a pancreas made of human cells. In theory, it would be a pancreas that could be transplanted into a person in need of that organ. Scientists have been investigating the use of animals as incubators in which to cultivate healthy human organs since the 1970s —it’s called “organ farming.” In late January 2017, the team published the results of their experiment in Cell

The UC scientists had used CRISPR gene editing to remove from a newly fertilized pig embryo the DNA responsible for growing a pancreas, creating a ”niche,” or a gap, into which human cells could be inserted. Next, they took human induced pluripotent (iPS) stem cells — adults stem cells regressed so that they can once again grow into any kind of human tissue — and slotted them into the niche.

This isn’t the first chimera the team had attempted. They’d injected rat cells into mouse embryos — the resulting mice had rat gall bladders— and rat cells into pig embryos, which didn’t work at all.

Rat-mouse chimera (JUN WU)

They had also tried introducing human cells into pig embryos before, though without creating a niche. They later found human cells throughout the pig, but they were fairing poorly in competition with the pig’s own cells. 

There are plenty of unresolved ethical concerns about organ farming, of course. Obviously there’s the question of whether it’s morally defensible to breed an animal strictly as a source for human parts, and there are worries about the treatment of organ-farm animals. There’s also the possibility of new diseases and/or conditions in humans and pigs that could result from tinkering with the intermingling of their DNA. And some are afraid human cells might wind up in a pig’s brain, causing who-knows-what kind of problems. One of the UC researchers, Pablo Ross, told the BBC last year, "We think there is very low potential for a human brain to grow, but this is something we will be investigating."

So. The new report reveals that though the human stem cells seemed at first to be successfully attaching and growing, they eventually failed. Four weeks after the fetuses had been implanted in mothers, there were only traces of human cells left behind. Principle UC investigator Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte tells Gizmodo, “The ultimate goal is to generate cells for human tissues. We feel that due to the first results we got, we are far way.”

Human cells are green in this image. (JUN WU)

The relative success of the rat-mouse chimera leaves scientists wondering why this experiment failed. It could be that rats and mice are closer genetically than humans and pigs. Human and porcine gestation times are also very different, so there may be a disconnect there. Paul Tesar, associate professor in genetics at Case Western, speaking to Gizmodo, suggests that selecting just the right kind of stem cells might also be a factor.

For Tesar, it’s not a total loss, though: “I think the paper is well done... It’s a huge amount of work, and the number of embryos they tested here is a pretty impressive tour-de-force. The end result might not be what they’re hoping for... but now we can move on from these studies and build upon them to get to the next level of analysis.”

The “new normal” paradox: What COVID-19 has revealed about higher education

Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?

Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
  • It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
  • COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
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Masturbation boosts your immune system, helping you fight off infection and illness

Can an orgasm a day really keep the doctor away?

Sexual arousal and orgasm increase the number of white blood cells in the body, making it easier to fight infection and illness.

Image by Yurchanka Siarhei on Shutterstock
Sex & Relationships
  • Achieving orgasm through masturbation provides a rush of feel-good hormones (such as dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin) and can re-balance our levels of cortisol (a stress-inducing hormone). This helps our immune system function at a higher level.
  • The surge in "feel-good" hormones also promotes a more relaxed and calm state of being, making it easier to achieve restful sleep, which is a critical part in maintaining a high-functioning immune system.
  • Just as bad habits can slow your immune system, positive habits (such as a healthy sleep schedule and active sex life) can help boost your immune system which can prevent you from becoming sick.
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The biology of aliens: How much do we know?

Hollywood has created an idea of aliens that doesn't match the science.

The biology of aliens: How much do we know? | Michio Kaku, ...
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  • Ask someone what they think aliens look like and you'll probably get a description heavily informed by films and pop culture. The existence of life beyond our planet has yet to be confirmed, but there are clues as to the biology of extraterrestrials in science.
  • "Don't give them claws," says biologist E.O. Wilson. "Claws are for carnivores and you've got to be an omnivore to be an E.T. There just isn't enough energy available in the next trophic level down to maintain big populations and stable populations that can evolve civilization."
  • In this compilation, Wilson, theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, Bill Nye, and evolutionary biologist Jonathan B. Losos explain why aliens don't look like us and why Hollywood depictions are mostly inaccurate.
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Live on Tuesday | Personal finance in the COVID-19 era

Sallie Krawcheck and Bob Kulhan will be talking money, jobs, and how the pandemic will disproportionally affect women's finances.

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