The innovative research will focus on genetically editing New Zealand-based Auckland Island pigs.
Non-edited AI pigs have been used for successful pig-to-human cell transplants that control diabetes and Parkinson’s disease.
They are naturally free of designated infectious agents and the only herd of pigs officially approved as a source of tissue for human transplantation.
The overarching research goal is therefore to advance scientific understanding of animal-to-human transplants and better protect them against immune rejection by human patients.
Funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, the research will also expand the unique population of AI pigs into a national asset with considerable long-term value.
AgResearch senior scientist Dr Bjorn Oback said there is a severe global shortage of transplantable biomaterials and the research could potentially provide solutions to the most acute organ shortage (kidneys), which comprises 66% of all transplants and 80% of patients on transplant waiting lists.
About 2,700 New Zealanders are on dialysis, even though kidney transplants would greatly improve their quality of life and expectancy. Thus, technologies that can increase the availability of transplant organs are urgently needed.
The unmet need for transplantation is immense; the worldwide cost of treating end-stage renal disease totals $1 trillion over a decade.
Dr Oback said his team would draw on CRISPR/Cas9 – a genetic tool often likened to molecular scissors, capable of adding, removing or repairing bits of DNA.
One of his collaborators had recently discovered a novel carbohydrate antigen in Auckland Island pigs and was now trying to pinpoint its underlying genetic basis.
"Building on this discovery, we hypothesise that eliminating this novel antigen, together with three already known xenoantigens, will create a more favourable cross-match between pig donors and human recipients," he said.
"Pre-clinical validation with antigen-specific assays will evaluate the xenoprotective effect of these measures." The study has been approved by the NZ medical safety authority (Medsafe), in consultation with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
A separate programme being led by Dr Oback, and also funded through the Government's Endeavour Fund, involved looking at whether the public would support gene-editing cows to boost milk production and lower their climate change footprint.