Ramping up research
$8 million grant will expand MU’s National Swine Center
The University of Missouri has received an $8 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to expand the National Swine Resource and Research Center on MU’s campus, which officials say should speed up scientific discoveries in biomedical research.
The center, which was established in 2003, has become the go-to source for genetically modified pigs used by researchers across the United States to study various diseases that impact humans. Keeping up with the ever-growing demand amid limited resources has become a challenge, said Randall Prather, principal investigator and professor in the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. Requests for genetically modified pigs constantly come in from researchers at universities all over the country, and the current facility has maxed out its capacity.
“We undertake projects for things that have failed in studies with mice but are much better suited for pigs,” Prather said. “For example, you can’t take a mouse’s heart and transplant it into a human. It’s not going to work. But pigs are far more genetically and physiologically similar to a human, so they are very good biomedical models to study human diseases. The cardiovascular systems are very similar between pigs and humans, and baby pigs are also great for studying infant nutrition, as their nutritional requirements are very similar to humans.”
The center has received funding from the NIH for 20 years. Construction on the expanded facility, which will have extremely high biosecurity protocols, is expected to begin in February 2024 and be completed by summer 2025.
While the NSRRC is mainly focused on biomedical studies, Prather’s work also has agricultural applications, such as making pigs that are resistant to certain diseases. The research has implications for both agriculture and human medicine.
“One example is the only genetically modified pig that has been approved for human consumption designed for people who suffer from red meat allergy,” Prather said. “We discovered that by disrupting a gene that produces a specific sugar molecule on the surface of cells within pigs, humans with red meat allergy can eat the genetically modified pork without suffering from any digestive issues.”
Prather invented the patent for this technology that is now owned by MU. In January 2022, surgeons in Maryland successfully transplanted a pig heart into a human patient for the first time ever. Prather’s decades worth of research, work with genetically modified pigs and knowledge of pig-to-human organ transplants helped contribute to the historic accomplishment.
“Our goal is to provide resources and knowledge so that others can be successful in helping people,” Prather said. “Our work is a part of medical solutions for people, and this expanded facility is crucial because pigs have so much potential for solving real-world problems. We are just one step in the journey, and it is satisfying to be a part of it.”
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