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Genetically Modified Pigs Might Save Your Life

The FDA is officially on board with GMO pig drugs—and maybe more.

Popular Mechanics

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Tim Macpherson

In 2020 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the second-ever genetically modified subtype of pig for human consumption. At that time there were no plans to raise this pig for meat or other foodstuffs—but a much, much cooler use case was in store.

By adjusting the pig’s genes so it doesn’t produce a particular sugar called galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose (alpha-gal), scientists can make medicines that are safe for a group of people who suffer from a peculiar, little-understood allergy. And while this certification isn’t planned for meat, that could be next.

Let’s dig into the wild world of the tick-induced “meat allergy” to the alpha-gal sugar.

The alpha-gal-free pig has one express purpose for now: to develop medical products, like blood thinners, that won't set off adverse reactions. That's according to the company behind the pig, United Therapeutics Corp, which has a long history with pigs for therapeutic products, such as genetically modified pig lungs for human use, for example.

Pigs are up to 90 percent or more “compatible” with similar human organ systems, with consequences from actual physical organs to the byproducts of them like insulin and blood thinners.

United Therapeutics Corp. has a proprietary process for snipping the DNA, but an industry observer says it likely works by removing the gene that makes alpha-gal and stanching that space with a “blank” genetic placeholder instead, AP reports.

The group of people who have an alpha-gal allergy is small, with estimates between a few hundred and about 5,000. But for that group, lack of access to products like medications, medical devices, and vaccines could be deadly. It’s a good reason to try out a specific genetic modification of this kind.

What’s the deal with alpha-gal allergies? The public radio science show Radiolab told one woman’s story in 2016:

“I was in the emergency room like they were shooting me full of I don’t know what - Epinephrine and Adrenaline and the little like 12 year old emergency room doctor runs in and he was like, ‘I looked it up on the Internet - Alpha Gal. Fascinating.’ Then when I went back to my doctor after that and I was like, ‘Hey, just get out of the emergency room, because they tested me for Alpha gal and I'm allergic to meat.’”

The allergy still isn't well understood, but it’s caused by tick-borne illnesses—in Radiolab’s case, their patient had Rocky Mountain spotted fever after being bitten by a tick her dog brought into the house. Researchers hope to understand the mechanism better, but people with the allergy are still a potentially devoted market for very specific products.

Think about the number of specialty pet foods for animals with allergies to certain proteins. (Elsewhere in public radio, This American Life’s Ira Glass adopted a legendary pitbull that had to eat kangaroo meat.) For humans with similar and devastating food allergies, a pig with a vanquished allergen could mean better options and easier decisions.

Caroline Delbert is a writer, avid reader, and contributing editor at Pop Mech. She's also an enthusiast of just about everything. Her favorite topics include nuclear energy, cosmology, math of everyday things, and the philosophy of it all.

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This post originally appeared on Popular Mechanics and was published December 22, 2020. This article is republished here with permission.

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