There are probably no carnivores in this world who will tell you they don't like bacon! From strips alongside your favorite egg dish, in tandem with tomato, lettuce, toast and mayonnaise, to being smothered in chocolate — there’s no denying our love for a piece of that savory smoked cured pork.
However, in the 21st Century, there’s yet another intriguing reason for humans to love pigs: They just might save our lives!
That’s right. Xenotransplantation, from the Greek word for “foreign” is the medical procedure that refers to the transfer of cells, tissues or organs between species.
A pig's organs are similar in size and function to a human’s. The science involved here is, in part, driven by the fact the demand for human organs far exceeds the supply. Currently ten patients die each day in the United States while on a waiting list to receive lifesaving vital organ transplants.
Vital Organs for Transplants
Humans have 5 vital organs that are essential for survival. Here are each of these organs along with the number of people who are waiting for a transplant:
Kidneys – 101,076
Liver – 15,000
Heart – 4,206
Lungs – 1,563
Brain – (everyone who keeps up with the Kardashians!)
So why pigs?
Why pigs, when primates are so much closer to us on the evolutionary scale? Pigs are the species of choice because their organs are anatomically similar to human organs. Primates were looked at in the 1990’s but virus transmission was much too high, and the larger the primate, the more problematic it became. Whether we like it or not, a pig’s organs are more compatible and take less time to gestate, making the time to harvest them a no-brainer.
Viruses still a problem . . .
But viruses exist in pigs as well. One major hurdle that has continued to vex cross-species transplants of this type has been the threat of transmitting viruses that can infect people and pigs alike: The latter’s genome includes 25 so-called retroviruses that apparently do nothing to porkers but might transmit diseases to people—especially immune-compromised transplant patients.
That concern, particularly amid the HIV epidemic, has slowed down this important research for the past couple decades (with the exception of pig heart valves that are used in humans—dead tissue that doesn’t pose the same transmission risks).
The CRISPR Genome Editor
A gene editing tool called the CRISPR might be the answer. This device holds enormous potential to wipe out diseases in both humans and animals. Already tested, there is an application that demonstrates how it could eradicate a faulty heart mutation in human embryos.
However, there is still a lot more that needs to be done to make it safe before applying the technology to fully formed human beings. Nonetheless, within the next decade, organs of a pig might be man's lifesaver.
So, what’s your thoughts about frying up some tantalizing bacon strips for your next dish of sunny-side-up eggs? Might it give you pause or perhaps give you yet another another reason to love those chubby little creatures? My bet is on the latter.
Primary Source: Scientific American