The week’s most astounding developments from the neobiological frontier.

October 12, 2023

Pig kidney shows promise as monkey xenotransplant—are humans next?

The whole reason for trying to use animal organs for human transplants is nothing more than a simple, stingy numbers game: There are far more people who need life-saving transplants than there are available organs from human donors. Organs harvested from pigs or other animals are a potential solution, but it’s complicated by the fact that the immune system recognizes sugar molecules and other surface antigens on animal tissues as foreign, avidly rejecting them. In the last few years, a number of researchers and companies have experimented with genetically engineering pigs, altering their tissues to make them more human compatible. Now researchers at the Cambridge, Massachusetts, biotech company eGenesis, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Harvard Medical School have demonstrated the latest success. Their genetically engineered pig kidneys were altered to remove the offending antigens and express human genes, and they showed those changes allowed the organs to survive seven times longer when transplanted into cynomolgus monkeys. Could human clinical trials be next? Nature

Massive atlas of human brain cells

An obscure but massive collaboration of American and European scientists called the Cell Census Network, funded through the NIH Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies initiative (BRAIN), made a big splash this week. They dropped more than a dozen research papers across three separate journals characterizing the type, distribution, and function of brain cells in humans, primates, and rodents. Two studies stood out to us in particular. The first, from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, presents a comprehensive cell atlas of the developing brain in the first trimester of human life, probing 26 brain samples taken 5–14 weeks after conception. The second paper, also from the Karolinska, in collaboration with the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, looks at gene expression in cells across the entire adult human brain. The researchers sampled RNA transcripts from three million cells recovered from three deceased donors, a global census they say is “a resource for understanding the molecular diversity of the human brain in health and disease.” Science

An abstract representation of cell diversity in the brain. Michael Nunn

CRISPR chickens

Bird flu is not just a major public health concern—it also inflicts massive economic pain. When avian influenza strikes a turkey or chicken farm, the normal response is to cull the flock. That spikes egg and meat prices and forces the federal government to spend money on investigations and other activities. Last year alone the USDA spent more than $660 million dealing with 59 million infected birds in 47 U.S. states. And the first major outbreak of 2023 was just reported this week. Now researchers at the University of Edinburgh and Imperial College London are trying to genetically modify chickens to make them more resistant to bird flu. Initial results show mixed success: 9 out of 10 genetically edited chickens remained healthy after being exposed to bird flu. But the virus also showed it could infect the birds in more ways than one, suggesting fully protecting poultry could require multiple gene edits. Nature Communications

Enhancing cancer treatment with probiotics

Researchers at Columbia University in New York City have developed a new way to improve CAR-T therapy, an immunotherapy for cancer treatment that spurs immune cells to attack tumors. The new approach involves combining immunotherapy with modified probiotic E. coli bacteria engineered to infiltrate tumors, release chemicals, and mark cancer cells with antigen molecules that attract immune cells. Testing this approach in rodents, the researchers showed that it could shrink tumors in mouse models of leukemia, colorectal cancer, and breast cancer. Science

How climate change could affect Bordeaux wine

It’s no secret that the quality of a wine is inexorably tied to the grapes from which it’s crushed, the land on which those grapes are grown, and the weather with which that land was blown. The theory of terroir teaches us that two bottles of the same vintage grown in the same season, in the same vineyard, and even from the same grapes—but from vines in different parts of the vineyard—can vary dramatically in taste. Now researchers at the University of Oxford and the University of Bordeaux in Villenave d’Ornon, France, have dug into the differential quality of wines grown in that famous region. Comparing subjective human rankings of different vintages to historic weather data, they confirm what oenophiles have long known intuitively: Higher quality wines come from grapes that see more rainfall, warmer temperatures, and earlier flowering. And based on these observations, they hypothesize, Bordeaux wines may continue to improve with a warming climate. iScience

Goalkeepers have the best timing

Soccer goalkeepers have a uniquely difficult task on their team that consists primarily of continually blocking shots, with the threat of losing the match each time if they fail. Soccer is a low-scoring game, after all. But blocking shots is often not straightforward, and goalkeepers often have their view of the ball in play blocked by other players. Some experts have hypothesized that this forces them to rely on alternative sensory cues—like the sound an out-of-sight ball makes when it’s struck—and integrate that input on the fly during game play. Now researchers at Dublin City University in Ireland have tested whether professional goalkeepers are, in fact, able to more rapidly process multisensory cues relative to their striker, midfielder, and defender counterparts. They found that like musicians, soccer goalkeepers have very precise abilities to estimate audiovisual timing. Current Biology