From farming pigs for organs to human brain transplants: Controversial geneticist George Church predicts the future of mankind

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Editorial Staff Whealthnews

Date: 23.07.2018

  • Professor George Church is a controversial Harvard University scientist
  • He says gene-editing could help extend the lifespan of human beings in future
  • The scientist is developing mini-brains in a lab for use in future transplants
  • He is also working to engineer pigs that grow human-compatible organs

By HARRY PETTIT FOR MAILONLINE

Humans will one day farm pigs for organs and use brain transplants to cure Parkinson's disease.

That's according to controversial Harvard geneticist Professor George Church, who says advances in DNA technology will soon change the way we live.

The scientist is currently working to create pigs that grow human-compatible organs for transplants, as well as mini-brains that grow in a petri-dish.

In a new interview, he said his work – alongside other gene-editing projects – could help to extend the human lifespan and even reverse the ageing process.

Speaking to Medium, he claimed several biological routes are being explored to reverse the effects of getting older.

These include attempts to expand the survival of our telomeres - bits of DNA that protect the tips of chromosomes and degrade as we age.

But despite a number of promising advances, Professor Church warned the eventual fix is unlikely to come in the form of a simple pill.

Speaking to Medium, he claimed several biological routes are being explored to reverse the effects of getting older.

These include attempts to expand the survival of our telomeres - bits of DNA that protect the tips of chromosomes and degrade as we age.

But despite a number of promising advances, Professor Church warned the eventual fix is unlikely to come in the form of a simple pill.

Last year, a Harvard team led by the 63-year-old used Crispr gene-editing technology to generate more than a dozen pigs bred without certain viruses that rendered many of their organs unusable for human transplant.

Professor Church believes pig-to-human organ transplant trials could happen by 2021 – a breakthrough that promises to dramatically shorten transplant lists.

Speaking about the research, the geneticist told Medium: 'We have begun trials in nonhuman primates of organs from engineered pigs.

'Some people say, "Oh, you shouldn’t do [genetic] enhancement", but the thing is we do enhancement all the time - to some extent, all aging reversal is enhancement. Vaccines are enhancement.'

Professor Church is also involved in a research project that aims to grow clumps of brain tissue in the lab known as 'organoids'.

His team announced in September they had for the first time successfully produced a brain organoid that grew its own blood vessels – a vital step toward fully functioning, transplantable tissues.

The scientist said: 'The largest structures we've made are on the order of half a billion cells, which is larger than a mouse brain.

'It’s not really a macho size thing yet; it’s just exploiting the ability to get flow through capillaries.'

Professor Church said the organoids could one day be used to develop treatments for Alzheimer's as well as other new drugs and therapies.

It could also be used to cure Parkinson's by replacing clumps of cells lost to the degenerative disease.

The scientist claimed that using this technique to bolster brain matter and improve someone's IQ would be 'quite safe'.

His controversial projects have repeatedly hit headlines over the course of a research career spanning more than four decades.

Professor Church was among the first to modify animal cells using the controversial gene-editing tool Crispr-Cas9, and is lead scientist for 'Woolly Mammoth Revival project' – which aims to use the tool to resurrect the extinct creature.

The scientist claims he can inset mammoth genes into an Asian elephant embryo to create a mammoth-elephant hybrid by 2020.

Researchers have called the effort a 'massive ethical issue' and questioned how the new animal would fit into modern ecosystems.

Professor Church has previously said studying Neanderthals cloned from ancient bone DNA could help scientists better understand how the human mind works.

Such experiments would pose a host of ethical concerns – including whether they would be treated as mere study subjects or as beings with their own rights.

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