Morgan Griffith: Ninth District on the cutting edge of biological engineering for health care

morgan griffithWhen not in Washington, D.C., voting in the U.S. House of Representatives during March, I was able to visit several sites where exciting research projects are underway. Previously, I wrote about some of them at Virginia Tech.

More recently, I visited a farm site where scientific accomplishments once seemingly from the realm of a futuristic novel promise to make a difference in our daily lives.

You may remember Dolly the sheep, the first mammal cloned with an adult cell. Dolly was cloned in Scotland in 1996 and died in 2003, and if you ever visit the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, you can see her taxidermied remains. The technology that created her continues to be advanced, refined, and put to new uses.

Some of that work is being done here in Southwest Virginia, thanks to a connection with Dolly: Virginia Tech had a stake in the entity that cloned her.

While the company that cloned Dolly no longer exists, in the years since she was cloned, related research has continued in our area, with the Blacksburg-based company Revivicor, which spun off from the company that created Dolly, developing technology for cloning and genetically modifying pigs.

During my visit to the farm where the genetically-modified cloned pigs are kept, which is located in the Ninth District, I saw that the pigs do not look different from any other pig. They are treated well, almost like pets. Unlike normal pigs, however, they potentially hold new advances in biological engineering for health purposes.

For example, they potentially offer a new source for organs that can be transplanted to the people in need of them. These special pigs’ organs have similarities to ours that could make them suitable for transplanting, providing a new source of organs for people waiting on them.

People with diabetes may also stand to benefit from this research, as certain cells from these genetically-modified pigs could be transplanted into a human pancreas to increase insulin production for those who need it.

Cloning genetically-modified pigs offer more than just a new source of organs for transplant. Scientists are working on ways to use cloned pigs to help people overcome particular food allergies.

The alpha-gal allergy has become more prevalent in the southeastern United States in recent years; one estimate suggests that up to 30 percent of people in the region have it. It is spread by Lone Star tick bites, which introduce alpha-gal molecules into the body. People who acquire this allergy suffer adverse effects, such as itching, swelling, and anaphylaxis, when eating red meat such as beef, lamb, pork, and venison.

Essentially any four-legged animals commonly brought to the dinner table become off-limits to a person with the alpha-gal allergy, even if he or she had previously been able to consume them. It imposes disappointing dietary restrictions on many.

Other deleterious effects impact the health of people with the alpha-gal allergy. Exposure to other products that come from mammals, not just food, can trigger allergic reactions. As an example, a small percentage of people would be affected by the gelatin sometimes used as an ingredient in medical products, such as capsules. Further, there are some indications that the allergy may contribute to heart disease.

Now how do these cloned pigs relate to this problem?

By splicing genes, eliminating the alpha-gal gene and adding others, researchers can create genetically-modified cloned pigs that do not produce the alpha-gal protein. Products derived from them, from food to medications, will not trigger allergic reactions.

It is exciting to know that this research, which could make a positive difference in the lives of men and women around the world, is being done in our backyard. The work I discussed in this column is just the tip of the iceberg of potential benefits.

Of course, as always with new fields of scientific research, propriety and ethics must be taken into consideration.

The biological engineering sector has a firm foothold in Southwest Virginia, drawing people and investment into our region. Just as there is a long way between Dolly the sheep and the progress yielded in these cloned pigs, the successes of this industry in our region may shape our world in new and unlikely ways.

If you have questions, concerns, or comments, feel free to contact my office.  You can call my Abingdon office at 276-525-1405 or my Christiansburg office at 540-381-5671. To reach my office via email, please visit my website at www.morgangriffith.house.gov. Also on my website is the latest material from my office, including information on votes recently taken on the floor of the House of Representatives.

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