A University of Missouri professor whose work includes producing genetically engineered pigs that may one day contribute to human organ transplants will be a featured speaker during Kansas State University's Swine Profitability conference on Feb. 7.
Randy Prather is the Curator's Distinguished Professor in the University of Missouri's Division of Animal Sciences, and the director of that university's National Swine Resource and Research Center.
His research includes early embryo development in pigs. He is credited with creating the first transgenic pigs by nuclear transfer and the first gene-targeted pigs that have been used for understanding human disease and improving agricultural productivity.
"The first genetically modified pigs we made were called 'green pigs,'" Prather said. "If you've been to an aquarium and seen jellyfish, you notice that they fluoresce under UV light. We put that same gene into pigs so people can use these cells for tracking studies."
Prather gave an example of retinal damage in a human eye. In a pig, researchers can repair the damage with stem cells, then turn on UV light and use the fluorescence to know if it's the stem cells that are responsible for the repairs.
In January, 2022, surgeons in Maryland successfully transplanted a pig heart into a human patient for the first time ever. "The genetic modification to make that transplant possible was first developed here at Missouri," Prather said.
The process of transplanting animal organs or tissues in human recipients – called xenotransplantation – has potential to transform human medicine, particularly for the more than 100,000 people on the organ transplant waiting list.
"And then on the agriculture side, we've got this terrible problem in the swine industry called PRRS (porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome)," Prather said.
The viral disease affects domestic pigs and symptoms include reproductive failure, pneumonia and increased susceptibility to secondary bacterial infections. In the United States, PRRS causes approximately $660 million in losses for swine producers; combined with losses in Europe, scientists estimate losses due to PRRS at $6 million each day.
Treatments using genetically engineering are not currently allowed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Prather hopes that will change soon.
"It's an animal welfare issue," he said. "We have animals that are getting sick and dying that don't need to. We have a solution. As farmers, we can't afford to have inputs, food, fuel, labor going into animals that are going to underperform or die."
Prather's Feb. 7 presentation is scheduled for 11:15 a.m. in the Stanley Stout Center, on the north side of the K-State campus. Also that day, K-State agricultural economist Glynn Tonsor will provide his outlook on the swine industry; and veterinarian Paul Yeske will discuss lessons learned from recent PRRS outbreaks.
The annual conference focuses on providing information to improve knowledge for pork producer business decisions. The full agenda and registration for this year's Swine Profitability Conference is available online.