By Rebecca Logan
Scientists are working to perfect a humanized pig.
It’s an effort not without controversy. But if it’s successful, there will be demand for those hogs with enough human genes to make their organs viable for human transplant. Will Smithfield Foods Inc. — and its hundreds of contract growers in North Carolina — help meet it?
The Smithfield, Va.-based company, a subsidiary of China’s WH Group, provides a paycheck for thousands of North Carolinians, both farmers and about 5,000 workers at its Tar Heel slaughterhouse. Smithfield says its primary focus is and will be food, but it is upping its visibility when it comes to a variety of medical uses for pig parts. A new division at its Virginia headquarters, Smithfield Bioscience, plans to use hog byproducts to develop pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals and medical devices as well as study tissue regeneration and the development of viable human organs for transplants.
There are plenty of byproducts at the Bladen County plant 25 miles south of Fayetteville. At the world’s largest pork processing plant, “It already does and will continue to significantly contribute to our bioscience efforts,” says Courtney Stanton, Smithfield Bioscience’s vice president.
Stanton says all of Smithfield’s plants are capable of producing materials for pharmaceutical and medical uses. Those are sold to companies that develop, for example, drugs for indigestion, hypothyroidism and deep vein thrombosis. Smithfield also supplies mucosa, a substance found in pig intestines, for heparin, a common blood thinner. But when it comes to regenerative medicine?
“Industries for the most part have been on the sidelines,” says Daniel Garry, a cardiology professor at the University of Minnesota who focuses on regenerative medicine and stem cell biology. “This is not something where you are going to cough out a product in a year. It requires tremendous vision to say, ‘We’re going to invest in a potential product that may not hit the market for seven or eight years.’”
Surgeons already use pig valves in heart transplants, but when it comes to the potential for pig-to-human transplants of, say, livers or kidneys, there are two major approaches being explored. There is decellularization, the technology of stripping organs of their cells. Then there’s growing them using both pig and human genes from the embryo stage, which could be possible sooner than you think.
eGenesis, a Cambridge, Mass.-based company formed by Harvard University researcher George Church, raised $38 million in March for a gene-editing tool aimed at eliminating barriers to human transplants. And earlier this year, the scientific journal Cell detailed what it called scientists’ first peer-reviewed account of pig-human hybrid fetuses. Scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California allowed pig-human chimeras to develop three or four weeks before destroying them to meet ethics regulations. In August, the National Institutes of Health announced it would lift its ban on federal funding of human-animal chimeras.
“There are a lot of new technologies that are coming together,” Garry says. “That makes this a very attractive time period to look at ways of manufacturing various products obtained from the pig. Smithfield has been doing that, but formalizing those efforts just makes sense.
“Look at the margins,” he says, profit that would be significantly higher for a hog that lands in a surgeon’s hands vs. one that ends up on your supper table.
Smithfield Bioscience has signed on with the Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute, a public-private U.S. manufacturing initiative that combines about 100 organizations focused on technologies for cells, tissue and organ development. Helping to lead the charge at ARMI is Segway inventor Dean Kamen, who has more than 440 patents to his name plus hundreds of employees at his Manchester, N.H.-based DEKA Research & Development.