By Sasha Gibson
Unbeknownst to me, my life story with pigs came full circle in the early 2000s. I had always liked working with pigs, learning about them and teaching or training others about them. Performance-related indicators such as farrow rates, total born, and total wean pigs per sow were all very important to me.
And in the drop of a hat, my life changed and my appreciation for pigs grew to a whole new level. Humans (and piglets) are born with a small hole in their heart which closes quickly after birth, as the first breaths are taken. A common congenital heart defect, known as VSD (Ventricular Septal Defect) occurs when the hole doesn’t close. For my family, we found this information out the hard way, when a heart murmur was detected within hours of our baby’s birth.
Suddenly the pig, and its ability to save lives came sharply into focus. In the 1960s, my baby would not have survived. Fast forward only a short 17 years, through countless innovations in the medical field, she not only survived, but thrived. It wasn’t easy, blood transfusions, heart valve repairs, stent placements and three heart surgeries, meant I had and continue to stay aware of technology in the medical field. In the world of congenital heart disease, you are never ‘fixed’ but learn to adapt to your heart and its capabilities. I am forever thankful for research, innovation, doctors, and surgeons that dream impossible fixes for difficult situations and the general practitioners continuously monitoring the health statuses of their patients, including my daughter.
Through this experience, I continue to live with a deep appreciation for the many ways the bountiful pig supports, and for so many, saves human lives. Diabetes effects 34 million people across the United States. It is likely you know someone that has this condition and uses insulin and a specialized food plan to survive. In the 1960 to 1970 era, insulin was harvested from pigs. While this was replaced soon after by biosynthetic insulin in the 1980s, it was no doubt that the humble pig established itself as not only a quality nutritious and safe food source, but also having human life saving capabilities!
Fast forward to the 1990s to present day, biological porcine (pig) heart valves are used in human surgeries. On average, approximately 182,000 people have a heart valve placed each year. Bovine (cow) tissue valves, and in some cases a mechanical valve is also commonly used for this purpose. All the valve replacement options do not last forever but have an average life expectancy of 15 to 20 years.
Sasha and daughter Anika
So why is the pig compatible to humans? Pigs are considered a translational research model, meaning their organs and body size are comparable to humans, inclusive of their cardiovascular system, skin and tissues, kidney system, as well as the digestive system. The most “like” area of a pig to humans is the cardiovascular system based on its similar size and shape. It is so similar that pigs also develop comparable conditions including artery plaque buildup (atherosclerosis) and experience the classic heart attack like humans. Do you know anyone who has a stent (tiny wire mesh tube that doctors insert into blocked passageways to restore the flow of blood or other fluids)? This technology is another example of a tool that was and continues to be modeled, developed, and evolved with the help of pigs.
Knowing the long list of similarities humans have with the pig, medical professionals and researchers continue to persevere forward with the goal to transplant pig organs into humans, technically referred to as Xenotransplantation. On any given day, there are around 114, 000 people in America awaiting an organ donation. Due to the lack of access or availability of human organs for transplant, approximately 20 people’s lives are lost, along with many others experiencing poor quality of life for years. The challenge with utilizing pig organs for human transplants, has been the high risk of immune system rejection of the organs/tissues by the human body.
As recent as December 2020, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) approved a first of its kind alteration to a domestic pig genetic line (GalSafe pigs), with the desired result to eliminate alpha-gal sugar on the surface of pigs’ cells, which is believed to be the cause for human rejection. This is an imperative evolution and progress to ensuring successful transplants, as well as improving widely used medical products, such as medication for blood thinners (i.e., heparin) commonly used for heart attacks, and pre-and-post surgery care.
The list continues of how pigs are more than just pork on our fork. However, my one hope is that you may be able to relate to the bountiful pig in a new or different way. Not only do pigs provide a livelihood for so many across our great nation and the globe, but they have likely given you or someone you love, life.
Born and raised in England, Sasha Gibson attended Harper Adam's University and received her Master's degree from the University of Aberdeen. Sasha became the Society for Human Resource Management – Senior Certified Professional in 2017. In 2018, Sasha joined the Christensen Farms team, as the Operations Training Manager.