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The little pigs bouncing around the lab looked exceedingly normal. Yet their adorable exterior hid a remarkable secret: each piglet carried two different sets of genes. For now, both sets came from their own species. But one day, one of those sets may be human.
The piglets are chimeras—creatures with intermingled sets of genes, as if multiple entities were seamlessly mashed together. Named after the Greek lion-goat-serpent monsters, chimeras may hold the key to an endless supply of human organs and tissues for transplant. The crux is growing these human parts in another animal—one close enough in size and function to our own.
Last week, a team from the University of Minnesota unveiled two mind-bending chimeras. One was joyous little piglets, each propelled by muscles grown from a different pig. Another was pig embryos, transplanted into surrogate pigs, that developed human muscles for more than 20 days.
The study, led by Drs. Mary and Daniel Garry at the University of Minnesota, had a therapeutic point: engineering a brilliant way to replace muscle loss, especially for the muscles around our skeletons that allow us to move and navigate the world. Trauma and injury, such as from firearm wounds or car crashes, can damage muscle tissue beyond the point of repair. Unfortunately, muscles are also stubborn in that donor tissue from cadavers doesn’t usually “take” at the injury site. For now, there are no effective treatments for severe muscle death, called volumetric muscle loss.
The new human-pig hybrids are designed to tackle this problem. Muscle wasting aside, the study also points to a clever “hack” that increases the amount of human tissue inside a growing pig embryo.
If further improved, the technology could “provide an unlimited supply of organs for transplantation,” said Dr. Mary Garry to Inverse. What’s more, because the human tissue can be sourced from patients themselves, the risk of rejection by the immune system is relatively low—even when grown inside a pig.
“The shortage of organs for heart transplantation, vascular grafting, and skeletal muscle is staggering,” said Garry. Human-animal chimeras could have a “seismic impact” that transforms organ transplantation and helps solve the organ shortage crisis.
That is, if society accepts the idea of a semi-humanoid pig.
The new study took a page from previous chimera recipes.
The main ingredients and steps go like this: first, you need an embryo that lacks the ability to develop a tissue or organ. This leaves an “empty slot” of sorts that you can fill with another set of genes—pig, human, or even monkey.
Second, you need to fine-tune the recipe so that the embryos “take” the new genes, incorporating them into their bodies as if they were their own. Third, the new genes activate to instruct the growing embryo to make the necessary tissue or organs without harming the overall animal. Finally, the foreign genes need to stay put, without cells migrating to another body part—say, the brain.
Not exactly straightforward, eh? The piglets are technological wonders that mix cutting-edge gene editing with cloning technologies.
The team went for two chimeras: one with two sets of pig genes, the other with a pig and human mix. Both started with a pig embryo that can’t make its own skeletal muscles (those are the muscles surrounding your bones). Using CRISPR, the gene-editing Swiss Army Knife, they snipped out three genes that are absolutely necessary for those muscles to develop. Like hitting a bullseye with three arrows simultaneously, it’s already a technological feat.
Here’s the really clever part: the muscles around your bones have a slightly different genetic makeup than the ones that line your blood vessels or the ones that pump your heart. While the resulting pig embryos had severe muscle deformities as they developed, their hearts beat as normal. This means the gene editing cut only impacted skeletal muscles.
Then came step two: replacing the missing genes. Using a microneedle, the team injected a fertilized and slightly developed pig egg—called a blastomere—into the embryo. If left on its natural course, a blastomere eventually develops into another embryo. This step “smashes” the two sets of genes together, with the newcomer filling the muscle void. The hybrid embryo was then placed into a surrogate, and roughly four months later, chimeric piglets were born.
Equipped with foreign DNA, the little guys nevertheless seemed totally normal, nosing around the lab and running everywhere without obvious clumsy stumbles. Under the microscope, their “xenomorph” muscles were indistinguishable from run-of-the-mill average muscle tissue—no signs of damage or inflammation, and as stretchy and tough as muscles usually are. What’s more, the foreign DNA seemed to have only developed into muscles, even though they were prevalent across the body. Extensive fishing experiments found no trace of the injected set of genes inside blood vessels or the brain.
A Better Human-Pig Hybrid
Confident in their recipe, the team next repeated the experiment with human cells, with a twist. Instead of using controversial human embryonic stem cells, which are obtained from aborted fetuses, they relied on induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). These are skin cells that have been reverted back into a stem cell state.
Unlike previous attempts at making human chimeras, the team then scoured the genetic landscape of how pig and human embryos develop to find any genetic “brakes” that could derail the process. One gene, TP53, stood out, which was then promptly eliminated with CRISPR.
This approach provides a way for future studies to similarly increase the efficiency of interspecies chimeras, the team said.
The human-pig embryos were then carefully grown inside surrogate pigs for less than a month, and extensively analyzed. By day 20, the hybrids had already grown detectable human skeletal muscle. Similar to the pig-pig chimeras, the team didn’t detect any signs that the human genes had sprouted cells that would eventually become neurons or other non-muscle cells.
For now, human-animal chimeras are not allowed to grow to term, in part to stem the theoretical possibility of engineering humanoid hybrid animals (shudder). However, a sentient human-pig chimera is something that the team specifically addressed. Through multiple experiments, they found no trace of human genes in the embryos’ brain stem cells 20 and 27 days into development. Similarly, human donor genes were absent in cells that would become the hybrid embryos’ reproductive cells.
Despite bioethical quandaries and legal restrictions, human-animal chimeras have taken off, both as a source of insight into human brain development and a well of personalized organs and tissues for transplant. In 2019, Japan lifted its ban on developing human brain cells inside animal embryos, as well as the term limit—to global controversy. There’s also the question of animal welfare, given that hybrid clones will essentially become involuntary organ donors.
As the debates rage on, scientists are nevertheless pushing the limits of human-animal chimeras, while treading as carefully as possible.
“Our data…support the feasibility of the generation of these interspecies chimeras, which will serve as a model for translational research or, one day, as a source for xenotransplantation,” the team said.
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This research project was originated from the collaboration between two institutions with their respective expertise: The TIPs laboratory of the ULB, in Belgium, which is a group dedicated to the study of transport phenomena and fluid interfaces, and the AS2M department of the FEMTO-ST institute, in France, specialized in microrobotics. And thus, ThermoBot was born, a new kind of manipulation platform working on the air-water interface. ThermoBot uses an original actuation mechanism, an infrared laser that locally heats the air-water interface, triggering so-called thermocapillary flows. Combining our specialties in interfacial phenomena and robotics, we were able to use this flow to displace floating components in a controlled manner. Continue reading
Thanks to neural implants, mind reading is no longer science fiction.
As I’m writing this sentence, a tiny chip with arrays of electrodes could sit on my brain, listening in on the crackling of my neurons firing as my hands dance across the keyboard. Sophisticated algorithms could then decode these electrical signals in real time. My brain’s inner language to plan and move my fingers could then be used to guide a robotic hand to do the same. Mind-to-machine control, voilà!
Yet as the name implies, even the most advanced neural implant has a problem: it’s an implant. For electrodes to reliably read the brain’s electrical chatter, they need to pierce through the its protective membrane and into brain tissue. Danger of infection aside, over time, damage accumulates around the electrodes, distorting their signals or even rendering them unusable.
Now, researchers from Caltech have paved a way to read the brain without any physical contact. Key to their device is a relatively new superstar in neuroscience: functional ultrasound, which uses sound waves to capture activity in the brain.
In monkeys, the technology could reliably predict their eye movement and hand gestures after just a single trial—without the usual lengthy training process needed to decode a movement. If adopted by humans, the new mind-reading tech represents a triple triumph: it requires minimal surgery and minimal learning, but yields maximal resolution for brain decoding. For people who are paralyzed, it could be a paradigm shift in how they control their prosthetics.
“We pushed the limits of ultrasound neuroimaging and were thrilled that it could predict movement,” said study author Dr. Sumner Norman.
To Dr. Krishna Shenoy at Stanford, who was not involved, the study will finally put ultrasound “on the map as a brain-machine interface technique. Adding to this toolkit is spectacular,” he said.
Breaking the Sound Barrier
Using sound to decode brain activity might seem preposterous, but ultrasound has had quite the run in medicine. You’ve probably heard of its most common use: taking photos of a fetus in pregnancy. The technique uses a transducer, which emits ultrasound pulses into the body and finds boundaries in tissue structure by analyzing the sound waves that bounce back.
Roughly a decade ago, neuroscientists realized they could adapt the tech for brain scanning. Rather than directly measuring the brain’s electrical chatter, it looks at a proxy—blood flow. When certain brain regions or circuits are active, the brain requires much more energy, which is provided by increased blood flow. In this way, functional ultrasound works similarly to functional MRI, but at a far higher resolution—roughly ten times, the authors said. Plus, people don’t have to lie very still in an expensive, claustrophobic magnet.
“A key question in this work was: If we have a technique like functional ultrasound that gives us high-resolution images of the brain’s blood flow dynamics in space and over time, is there enough information from that imaging to decode something useful about behavior?” said study author Dr. Mikhail Shapiro.
There’s plenty of reasons for doubt. As the new kid on the block, functional ultrasound has some known drawbacks. A major one: it gives a far less direct signal than electrodes. Previous studies show that, with multiple measurements, it can provide a rough picture of brain activity. But is that enough detail to guide a robotic prosthesis?
The new study put functional ultrasound to the ultimate test: could it reliably detect movement intention in monkeys? Because their brains are the most similar to ours, rhesus macaque monkeys are often the critical step before a brain-machine interface technology is adapted for humans.
The team first inserted small ultrasound transducers into the skulls of two rhesus monkeys. While it sounds intense, the surgery doesn’t penetrate the brain or its protective membrane; it’s only on the skull. Compared to electrodes, this means the brain itself isn’t physically harmed.
The device is linked to a computer, which controls the direction of sound waves and captures signals from the brain. For this study, the team aimed the pulses at the posterior parietal cortex, a part of the “motor” aspect of the brain, which plans movement. If right now you’re thinking about scrolling down this page, that’s the brain region already activated, before your fingers actually perform the movement.
Then came the tests. The first looked at eye movements—something pretty necessary before planning actual body movements without tripping all over the place. Here, the monkeys learned to focus on a central dot on a computer screen. A second dot, either left or right, then flashed. The monkeys’ task was to flicker their eyes to the most recent dot. It’s something that seems easy for us, but requires sophisticated brain computation.
The second task was more straightforward. Rather than just moving their eyes to the second target dot, the monkeys learned to grab and manipulate a joystick to move a cursor to that target.
Using brain imaging to decode the mind and control movement. Image Credit: S. Norman, Caltech
As the monkeys learned, so did the device. Ultrasound data capturing brain activity was fed into a sophisticated machine learning algorithm to guess the monkeys’ intentions. Here’s the kicker: once trained, using data from just a single trial, the algorithm was able to correctly predict the monkeys’ actual eye movement—whether left or right—with roughly 78 percent accuracy. The accuracy for correctly maneuvering the joystick was even higher, at nearly 90 percent.
That’s crazy accurate, and very much needed for a mind-controlled prosthetic. If you’re using a mind-controlled cursor or limb, the last thing you’d want is to have to imagine the movement multiple times before you actually click the web button, grab the door handle, or move your robotic leg.
Even more impressive is the resolution. Sound waves seem omnipresent, but with focused ultrasound, it’s possible to measure brain activity at a resolution of 100 microns—roughly 10 neurons in the brain.
A Cyborg Future?
Before you start worrying about scientists blasting your brain with sound waves to hack your mind, don’t worry. The new tech still requires skull surgery, meaning that a small chunk of skull needs to be removed. However, the brain itself is spared. This means that compared to electrodes, ultrasound could offer less damage and potentially a far longer mind reading than anything currently possible.
There are downsides. Focused ultrasound is far younger than any electrode-based neural implants, and can’t yet reliably decode 360-degree movement or fine finger movements. For now, the tech requires a wire to link the device to a computer, which is off-putting to many people and will prevent widespread adoption. Add to that the inherent downside of focused ultrasound, which lags behind electrical recordings by roughly two seconds.
All that aside, however, the tech is just tiptoeing into a future where minds and machines seamlessly connect. Ultrasound can penetrate the skull, though not yet at the resolution needed for imaging and decoding brain activity. The team is already working with human volunteers with traumatic brain injuries, who had to have a piece of their skulls removed, to see how well ultrasound works for reading their minds.
“What’s most exciting is that functional ultrasound is a young technique with huge potential. This is just our first step in bringing high performance, less invasive brain-machine interface to more people,” said Norman.
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