Scientists create human-sheep chimera with hopes of affordable organ transplants

A team of scientists has grown hybrid embryos in the womb of a sheep that contain human stem cells, moving the sci-fi idea of developing human organs inside animals one step closer to reality, and sparking ethical concerns.

The development could potentially save thousands lives among people who are in a need of vital organ transplants. Many patients die before they reach to the top of a queue, but scientists have long claimed organs like a pancreas for example, grown inside a pig, sheep or some other animal, could possibly not only save a life but also cure a chronic illness such Type 1 Diabetes.

This week, the team from Stanford University announced they had grown a sheep embryo injected with adult human stem cells for 28 days, including 21 days inside a sheep mother. The news was revealed at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Austin, Texas, the Guardian reports. The experiment had to be terminated, as U.S. law forbids developing cross-species embryos, called chimera, for more than 28 days.

Researchers had already created the first human-pig hybrid. The major difference this time is they achieved a much higher ratio of human cells to animal cells in the hybrid embryo, which is one human cell to about 10,000 sheep cells, according to Dr. Pablo Ross from the University of California.

To prevent the natural abortion of the unnatural embryo and create the part-human, part-animal chimera, the researchers use a gene-editing technique. First, they deleted genes needed for developing a certain organ in an animal embryo, then they injected human stem cells to fill the void. In 2010, Japanese scientists were the first to use this method to create a mouse and rat chimera, where the rat cells were introduced into a mouse to form a missing pancreas.

Last year, the same team that is now working on a sheep embryo, announced that it had, for the most part, cured diabetes in mice after transplanting a mouse pancreas it had grown in a rat.

There’s still a long way to go until this could be possible to replicate on humans, the researchers said. Unlike the rats or mice, both sheep and pigs have organs similar in size to those of a human.

“It could take five years or it could take 10 years but I think eventually we will be able to do this,” the study’s co-author Hiromitsu Nakauchi of Stanford University said.

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