New pig embryo technique aids disease research

MU team can ship embryos to research labs across the U.S.
Thursday, May 4, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:15 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Researching cures for human diseases will be easier and less expensive thanks to a breakthrough by Randy Prather, MU professor of reproductive biotechnology, and his team of MU scientists.

The new process allows scientists at the National Swine Center at MU to create pig embryos that have been genetically modified to serve as models of diseases being researched by other labs, Prather said. The embryos would then be cryogenically frozen and shipped across the world to be placed in surrogate pigs. All the receiving laboratories would need is a surgery suite and some pigs.

“We could start the process, but it would take six months to do the genetic modification and freeze the embryos,” Prather said.

The development is critical for this technique because pigs can be used as models for human diseases and thus help develop treatment for those diseases.

Shipping the cryogenically frozen embryos will lower costs to laboratories that currently ship in live animals. The risk for disease transmission will also be greatly decreased because the embryos will be created in a disease-free environment.

“It’s incredibly important for us,” Prather said. “We’re the only national swine resource and research center in the U.S., and one of the goals of this center is to make genetically modified pigs for the National Institutes of Health. This is going to make meeting that goal a lot easier for us.”

Prather said freezing the embryos makes placement in the surrogate much easier because they can be thawed at the right time in the reproductive cycle.

At issue for Prather and his team was developing a freezing process the embryos could survive. The key was removing the lipids, or fats, from them.

Prather and other researchers from around the country recently announced discovery of how to replace omega-6 fatty acids in pork with beneficial omega-3 fatty acids. That process must wait for Food and Drug Administration approval, which can take awhile because the FDA has not approved any genetically modified animals to date.

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