Recently, a Chinese startup named Qihan Biotech raised $20 million to develop replacement organs for humans. The smallish deal would hardly have rated a headline, except for the fact that the Hangzhou-based gene-editing company is aiming to grow those organs in pigs and other animals. If successful, such transplants could well transform medicine. And, thanks to a unique confluence of need, money, timing and culture, China is poised to lead the way in developing them.
The history of using animal tissues to replace damaged or diseased human tissues, known as xenotransplantation, dates back at least to 16th century Europe. Science-based efforts gathered momentum in the 19th century, but stalled out as practitioners and patients discovered how strongly the human body rejects foreign organs. Medicine achieved a breakthrough only in the mid-20th century with the advent of immuno-suppressing drugs.
Xenotransplantation has since become a recognized branch of medicine. Heart valves from pigs, for instance, are commonly used to replace faulty human ones.
However, transplanting a complete, functioning animal organ such as a heart presents far more formidable barriers, the most crucial being the need to suppress or fool the human body’s immune response. China’s scientists have become world leaders in editing the pig genome to do just that. The hope is to produce organs that can help people with a range of illnesses, from heart disease to blindness.