Pigs have long been recognized as one of the most adaptive and productive food animals of all time. Turns out they are equally important in curing the diseases that plague humanity.
When considering the lifestyles of people who express concerns about the consumption of animals foods, the spectrum runs from casual ovo-lacto-“vegetarians” who only pass up the red meat to strict non-meat-eaters who’re all too happy to polish off a tub of ice cream to holier-than-thou vegans who won’t eat Jell-O because one ingredient comes from cows to Buddhist monks who won’t even swat a mosquito feasting on their necks, because after all, they have just as much right to live as we do.
But what all this array of people generally has in common is a core belief that the “natural state” of animals is to be running free in some Disney-esque paradise, free from the toxic interactions of human beings. They never seem to consider that every single member of the animal kingdom is either predator or prey, but that’s a discussion for another day.
The relevant point here is that the anti-meat contingent, as diverse as it might be, finds common ground on the issue of animal abuse — that is, “abuse” as defined, unfortunately, by hardcore activists, which is to say that any “exploitation” of animals benefitting some business interests is verboten.
What isn’t discussed — except in a negative light — is the role of animals in advancing the health and well-being of humanity. There’s virtually no one who rejects a necessary medical procedure, a life-saving surgery of the use of pharmaceutical products that allow even seriously ill people to resume the semblance of a normal life.
The operative questions are, “How did medical researchers develop those drugs and those procedures? Where do surgeons get the experience we demand when it comes to invasive but necessary surgery?”
(As an aside, a few years ago I was facing open heart surgery, and I’d like to think I was no different from any other patient. My chief concern was whether the cardiac surgeon knew what he was doing. In fact, I asked him, hopefully, “This is routine for you, right?” He answered in classic hotshot cardiologist fashion, “When you come back here in six weeks for a follow-up, I won’t even remember your name.” Reassuring, in a backhanded kind of way.)
The need for testing
The point is that every medical intervention requires extensive testing, not only to develop the drug, the device or the procedure, but to confirm through repeated trials that the surgery or pharmaceutical treatment is safe and effective.
Anyone willing to volunteer to be the first guy who gets cut open to see if it’s possible to implant a mechanical valve in somebody’s heart? And hope that the first time a medical team attempts the procedure, it works perfectly?
In fact, it would be reckless and unprofessional to proceed with any medical therapy before extensive trials and testing, and for that we need to use animals whose physiology resembles ours. One species that has proven particularly useful is pigs, specifically transgenic breeds of minipigs and micro-minipigs.
Here’s an excerpt from the article, “Current Progress of Genetically Engineered Pig Models for Biomedical Research,” published last month in BioResearch Open Access, a peer-reviewed journal focused on molecular and cellular biology, regenerative medicine, neuroscience and bioengineering:
“The first transgenic pigs were generated for agricultural purposes about three decades ago. Since then, the micromanipulation techniques of pig oocytes and embryos expanded from pronuclear injection of foreign DNA to somatic cell nuclear transfer, intracytoplasmic sperm injection-mediated gene transfer, lentiviral transduction, and cytoplasmic injection.
“Mechanistically, the passive transgenesis approach based on random integration of foreign DNA was developed to activate genetic engineering techniques based on the transient activity of ectopic enzymes, such as transposases, recombinases, and programmable nucleases. Whole-genome sequencing and annotation of advanced genome maps of the pig complemented these developments.”
If all that’s crystal clear, then you possess far more scientific literacy than I do. But what the authors are saying is that the use of these specially bred pigs, whose physiology, metabolism, genome organization and pathology is similar to humans, is advancing biomedical research, particularly in disease modeling. (That’s what they said — that’s not me interpreting their scholarly article).
Transgenic minipigs are valuable research subjects in developing new treatments for cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, neurodegenerative diseases and transplantations. And as for using rats instead of pigs (as if that represents some substantive ethical difference), the authors noted that, “Rodent models differ [from humans] in a number of critical parameters, such as size, life span, genome organization, physiology and metabolism.”
Rats are great for certain types of research, but if you’re trying to develop a new drug or an innovative treatment for human diseases — or if you just want to be sure your cardiologist knows what he or she is doing when they crack open your chest and cut into your heart while it’s laying on a table — then pigs are vastly preferred.
I’d love to find out just how many “committed” vegetarians would pass up life-saving surgery for their children or loved ones, because some physician practiced on a pig.
Even minipigs will fly before many veggies adopt that stance.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.