The year in science

CRISPR is back, vaccines are getting smarter, we’ve finally mapped the human brain, and space data is being used to understand everything from dark matter to alien life.

11 December 2023

/ Can’t find a human kidney? How about one from a pig?

Human organ donation is limited (in South Africa, there are over 4 000 people on the transplant waiting list), but scientists are slowly finding success with gene-edited organ transplants. Kidney-related illnesses are on the rise and eGenesis, a Massachusetts- based biotech company, believes that cross-plantation (called xenotransplantation) could be the solution. This approach, which has potential to be both sustainable and scalable, sounds futuristic, but it’s something that scientists have been exploring for years, starting with chimpanzee and baboon organs back in the 1960s. In the past, the organs failed within days because of rejection, but gene-editing (yes, CRISPR is back) could solve this conundrum; this year, eGenesis managed to keep a kidney from a genetically engineered pig alive inside a monkey for over two years. When human kidneys stop working, the answer is to go onto dialysis – a machine that removes excess fluid from the blood. But the prognosis of dialysis is poor – half of the patients on dialysis die within five years, which is why the promise of engineered organs is a game-changer. And with technology like 3D printing, it may be possible to engineer organs without animals. There’s already a paediatric microtia surgeon in Texas using a 3D bioprinter alongside live cartilage cells from patients to create less complicated organs like ears.

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