June 15, 2021

Piggy medicine | Science | THE COUNTRY

Piggy medicine | Science | THE COUNTRY

Around 13,000 years ago, the paths of human beings (Homo sapiens sapiens) and the pig (Your scrofa domestica) crossed each other to never separate again. The domestication of the gorrino meant a push for the survival and expansion of the human being during the Neolithic, thanks to the versatility and great use of the different organs and tissues of this farm animal. In Spain there is a real passion for the pig and it is not surprising that we find more pigs than people living between our borders. Specifically, there are currently more than 50 million pigs in our country.

As the popular saying goes, the pig takes advantage of everything, even walking. From skin to bones, there are many parts of pork and its derivatives that are used not only for meats and sausages, but also for perfumes, leather, brushes, oils, cosmetics, soap, candles, fertilizers … And the applications They do not end there: multiple medical treatments also come from the pig. In fact, the health and life of millions of people have been linked to the pig for almost a century.

It may sound amazing today, but receive a diagnosis of Diabetes type 1 before 1922 it was the equivalent of receiving a death sentence, as there was no effective treatment. In 1920 it was discovered that what caused this type of diabetes was the destruction of the pancreatic islets, making it impossible to produce insulin (a hormone that regulates blood glucose levels). So, the key treatment for these diabetics was to administer insulin to them so they could lead a normal life, but how to get it?

At that time, the main sources for obtaining insulin were the pancreas of pigs and cows. The pigs were the best choice because Porcine insulin differs in only one amino acid from human insulin. However, this process was extremely expensive and inefficient. To get just 227 grams of insulin, almost two tons of pork tissue were needed. In other words, every diabetic needed the sacrifice of dozens of pigs and cows to comply with their constant treatment. Fortunately, thanks to the massive production of synthetic human insulin by genetically modified bacteria since 1978, the use of animals, the extraction of insulin was no longer a necessity.

A medicine essential for the human being for a century, heparin, has provenance porcine. It is the most used anticoagulant in the world

Another essential medicine for the human being for a century, heparin, has also come from the pig. It is the most widely used anticoagulant in the world and is estimated to save the lives of more than 100 million people each year. Thanks to this drug, surgeries are much safer and can treat people with risk of thrombosis (formation of blood vessel clots). The main origin of the current commercial heparin is the intestinal mucosa of pigs. Again, efficiency is low, since only a few grams of heparin can be obtained from each gorrino. Although there have been advances in recent years for the development of synthetic heparin, it has not yet been commercialized and pork is still the main source today.

Several components of the pig are also present in a multitude of medications as excipients (inactive substances that are mixed with the active ingredients for various purposes, such as facilitating preservation and administration). For example, gelatin (collagen) coming from pig tissues or of cows is often used to manufacture the capsules that cover an infinity of drugs.

The presence of swine is not limited, far from it, to the field of pharmacology; in the surgical area, pigs are also used for vital treatments. It is the case of the biological heart valves that come, in the absolute majority of cases, from the pig. The reason? The heart of the pig is very similar to the human heart. In fact, if it were not for the immune rejection that appears between different species, pig hearts would be the ideal alternative to a heart transplant when there is a shortage of human hearts.

Biological heart valves they come, in the absolute majority of cases, from the pig. The reason? The heart of the pig is very similar to the human heart

Currently, patients who have defective heart valves (which do not open or close properly) and meet certain conditions receive heart valves that usually come from the pig. To prevent or minimize the immune reaction to these valves, chemical compounds such as glutaraldehyde are used or detergents are used they hide or eliminate molecules that might be considered foreign by the immune system. The great advantage of these biological valves over the mechanical ones is the lower risk of causing clots, however, their duration is usually limited so they have to be changed after a certain time.

The future of medicine also has great plans for the pig. A multitude of research groups throughout the world work from different fronts to achieve an ambitious common objective: the hearts of pigs can be transplanted into humans, as nowadays human hearts are transplanted. Some steps toward that goal have already been made. On the one hand, gorillas have been genetically modified to be free of retroviruses (thanks to the fabulous genetic modification tool CRISPR) that could cause problems in humans before a transplant. On the other, pigs have also been genetically altered so that they do not produce certain molecules that our immune system detects as foreign.

Even work is being done to create humanized pigs so that, selectively, the pigs grow with human hearts. In fact, the first pig-human chimera was announced to the public at the beginning of 2017, but we are still far from getting pigs with human hearts. The advances in the field, however, are very promising. At the end of 2018 it was announced that two baboon monkeys had been living with pig hearts for six months, a record thanks to the genetic modification of the pigs and a new transplant technique. Seen the seen thing, it can that in a few decades the relation between human and pigs get to be as intimate as until the end of which exist human beings among us with pig hearts. With total certainty, who coined the phrase "the pig takes advantage of everything" did not imagine how far it would come in this matter.


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