The first of the genetic remedies to come

The recent success in ‘humanising’ pigs’ pancreas glands by means of gene editing is, if confirmed, going to be of huge benefit when transplanted into humans born with diabetes 1 — those born with a defective pancreas. For these unfortunates there is no known cure, only careful management of insulin injections to keep the disease at bay.

There are two sets of objectors to such possible future transplants. Firstly, the usual charge by animal protectionists such as vegetarians. The obvious response to this is that most of us eat pork anyway. Secondly, that the pigs themselves might also acquire humanised brains along with pancreases by the act of gene editing. Therefore the experimental pigs themselves require the full protection of human rights!

This is not so silly as it seems because the genes mainly responsible for insulin production in our pancreases also have, like all genes, multiple associations with other genes carrying out other functions in other parts of the body. However, genes responsible for the development of the brain have far more associations with other genes than any other genes have.

Therefore, although a pig may receive a fully humanised pancreas the distribution of its brain neurons between specialised areas of the brain is never likely to be affected by more than a trivial amount. For this reason the US National Institute of Health is already insisting that any gene edited pigs should be tested for possible human cognition.

On the face of it, it’s looking as though diabetes type 1 will be the first of many genetic diseases that will become treatable in large numbers in the coming years.

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