Shanghai, China - Scientists have managed to transform pig cells into pluripotent stem cells – cells that, like embryonic stem cells, are capable of developing into any type of cell in the body.
It's the first time in the world that this has been achieved in an ungulate using cells other than sperm or egg cells.
The research could open the way to creating models for human genetic diseases, genetically engineering animals for organ transplants for humans, and for developing pigs that are resistant to diseases such as swine flu.
The team succeeded in generating induced pluripotent stem cells by using transcription factors to reprogram cells taken from a pig's ear and bone marrow. After the cocktail of reprogramming factors had been introduced into the cells via a virus, the cells changed and developed in the laboratory into colonies of embryonic-like stem cells.
"The pig species is significantly similar to humans in its form and function, and the organ dimensions are largely similar to human organs. We could use embryonic stem cells or induced stem cells to modify the immune-related genes in the pig to make the pig organ compatible to the human immune system," said Dr Lei Xiao, who led the research. "Then we could use these pigs as organ donors to provide organs for patients that won't trigger an adverse reaction from the patient's own immune system."
Pig pluripotent stem cell lines could also be used to create models for human genetic diseases. However, Dr Xiao warned that it could take several years before some of the potential medical applications of his research could be used in the clinic.
The next stage of his research is to use the pig stem cells to generate gene-modified pigs that could provide organs for patients, improve the pig species or be used for disease resistance.
The work is published online today in the newly launched Journal of Molecular Cell Biology.