In a US $50 million research and development deal, Lung Biotechnology, a unit of United Therapeutics, has teamed up with Synthetic Genomics to genetically engineer pigs whose organs can be safely transplanted into a human body.
'We believe this is one of the most exciting and important programs ever undertaken in modern medical science', said Dr Venter, CEO of Synthetic Genomics.
Approximately 400,000 people die annually from different forms of lung disease in the US, and very few of these deaths could be avoided due to the serious shortage of transplantable human lungs, according to United Therapeutics.
Scientists at Synthetic Genome will edit the pig genome so that it is compatible with humans, to avoid the common problem of transplanted organs being rejected by the immune system.
'We're going to start with generating a brand new super-accurate sequence of the pig genome, and then go through in detail and compare it to the human genome', Venter told Reuters. 'The goal is to go in and edit, and where necessary, rewrite using our synthetic genomic tools, the pig genes that seem to be associated with immune responses', he added.
Researchers at United Therapeutics will then work with these genetically altered cell and input them into pig eggs. The purpose of this is to generate embryos, which will develop into pigs with 'humanised' lungs.
'Our combined expertise should enable us to develop an unlimited supply of transplantable organs, potentially helping millions of patients who die from end-stage organ disease', said Dr Martine Rothblatt, CEO of United Therapeutics.
Dr Venter believes that his team may be able to develop these edited cells within a few years. However, clinical trials in humans would take an additional few years.
Dr Daniel Salomon, president of the American Society of Transplantation, commented on this project, saying: 'I have no doubt that Dr Venter and colleagues can develop a very fine genetic map of the pig. But genetically engineering this into a human-compatible organ is a huge leap'.