How New Zealand’s pesky pigs turned into cash cows

by The Insights

In the late 1990s, a London-based research team confirmed that, at least in the laboratory, PERVs could infect human cells.

The discovery, for a time, “killed xenotransplantation,” said Björn Petersen, a xenotransplantation researcher at the Friedrich Loeffler Institute, the German government’s animal disease research centre. “The pharmaceutical companies took their money out of research.”

All over the world, the hunt was on for pigs that were as unharmed as possible.

In 1998, Diatranz his partner Olga Garkavenko turned on her radio and caught wind of the new arrivals from Invercargill. She decided to investigate.

The company obtained tissue samples from the quarantined pigs for analysis. The harsh conditions of the islands, it seemed, had been hard on the disease.

“They remained isolated and therefore free of many common infections that you have in pigs,” Tan said. “The pigs that were weak were probably wiped out. Only the fittest survived.

Pigs also have an abnormally low number of copies of retroviruses in their genome. Petersen noted that the population is also completely free of a type of PERV called PERV-C, which may pose the greatest risk to human transplant recipients. This was possible “because they were isolated for a long time and never had contact with other pigs”.

Joachim Denner, a xenotransplantation researcher from the Free University of Berlin, said Auckland Island pigs have another major advantage over other pig breeds: their small size. At about 90 pounds in weight, he said, “they’re the right size for transplanting.” A domestic pig weighs between 300 and 700 pounds and its organs, he added, are too big.

In 2004, Elliott, Tan and others created a company called Living Cell Technologies, or LCT, which absorbed Diatranz and took over care of the pigs, building an expensive facility near Invercargill to keep them in isolation. medical grade while they were selectively. bred for xenotransplantation.

Animals housed in quarantine were suddenly deemed to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars each, much to the barely concealed delight of then-mayor Shadbolt.

The project has brought jobs and millions of investment dollars to Invercargill. “It all came together,” Shadbolt said in the 2008 Otago Daily Times article. “I rub it against those people who haven’t supported me at every opportunity.”

Since the 2010s, concerns about PERVs were easing, as multiple clinical trials of cell transplants suggested not only that porcine cells could be effective in treating diabetes, but also that PERVs were not transmitted to humans. New gene-editing technology also meant that retrovirus genes could be rendered non-functional before an animal was born.

With these advances, the race to successfully implant pig organs in humans has accelerated. Groups around the world are now raising pigs for this purpose. That’s big business – a recent report estimated that the global xenotransplantation market could be worth $24.5 billion by 2029.

In January 2022, a group from the University of Maryland, using a pig organ from the American company Revivicor, performed the first successful transplant of a pig heart into a living patient. The patient survived for two months. While the cause of his death is still being investigated, evidence of a disease called porcine cytomegalovirus was found during the autopsy. The pig used in the transplant, Tan said, would have been rigorously screened for the virus, which he added shows the importance of raising pigs that are truly free of such diseases.

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