Smithfield makes move on market for pig-human transplants

Julie Steenhuysen and Michael Hirtzer

CHICAGO, April 12 (Reuters) - Smithfield Foods, the world's

largest pork producer, has established a separate bioscience

unit to expand its role in supplying pig parts for medical uses,

with the ultimate goal of selling pig organs for transplantation

into humans.

Routine pig-human organ transplants are years away, but

recent scientific advances are breaking down barriers that

frustrated prior attempts to use pigs as a ready supply of

replacement parts for sick or injured people, making it an

attractive new market.

"Our bread and butter has always been the bacon, sausage,

fresh pork - very much a food-focused operation," Courtney

Stanton, vice president of Smithfield's new bioscience unit,

told Reuters in an exclusive interview.

“We want to signal to the medical device and science

communities that this is an area we're focused on - that we're

not strictly packers," she said.

Smithfield, the $14 billion subsidiary of China’s WH Group

, in its first move has joined a public-private tissue

engineering consortium funded by an $80 million grant from the

U.S. Department of Defense. Smithfield is the only pork

producer, joining health-care companies including Abbott

Laboratories, Medtronic and United Therapeutics

Corp.

Transplants are used for people diagnosed with organ failure

and who have no other treatment options. Transplants from

animals could help close a critical gap to help those in need.

The United Network for Organ Sharing estimates that, on average,

22 people die each day while waiting for a transplant.

Smithfield already harvests materials for medical use from

the 16 million hogs it slaughters each year. The company owns

more than 51 percent of its farms and hopes to sell directly to

researchers and health-care companies, which now typically buy

from third parties.

Stanton said the U.S. market for pork byproducts used for

medical, pet food and non-food purposes stands at more than $100

billion, and that excludes any potential market for

animal-to-human transplants, known as xenotransplants.

Smithfield has deals in the works to supply pig organs to

two entities, though Stanton would not disclose the names.

"It's just a huge potential space, and to be at the leading

edge and focused on building those relationships is critical,”

she said.

HOG HEARTS

Pigs have long been a tantalizing source of transplants

because their organs are so similar to humans. A hog heart at

the time of slaughter, for example, is about the size of an

adult human heart.

Other organs from pigs being researched for transplantation

into humans include kidney, liver and lungs.

Prior efforts at pig-to-human transplants have failed

because of genetic differences that caused organ rejection or

viruses that posed an infection risk. Swiss drugmaker Novartis

AG folded its $1 billion xenotransplantation effort in

2001 because of safety concerns about pig viruses that could be

passed to humans.

George Church, a Harvard Medical School genetics professor

and researcher, tackled that problem two years ago, using a new

gene-editing tool known as CRISPR to trim away potentially

harmful virus genes that have impeded the use of pig organs for

transplants in humans.

Church has since formed a company named eGenesis Bio to

develop humanized pigs that do not provoke a rejection response

or transfer viruses to people. The company last month raised $38

million in venture funding.

Eventually, Church said, the process could enable

researchers to harvest a dozen different organs and tissues from

a single pig.

Church estimates the first transplants involving humanized

pig organs could occur in a clinical trial later this year, but

these would only be used on people too sick to receive human

organs.

Genome pioneer Craig J. Venter’s Synthetic Genomics Inc has

been working for two years with United Therapeutics on editing

the pig genome and mixing in human cells to overcome the complex

issues involved in immune rejection.

"It's not like changing a couple genes and you've got it

solved," Venter said.

Stanton would not rule out breeding genetically modified

animals, but said Smithfield's first ventures will likely

involve whole pig organs that go through decellularization - a

process in which existing cells are washed away and replaced

with human cells.

Miromatrix Medical Inc, of Eden Prairie, Minnesota, for

example, is using whole pig livers to make a surgical mesh used

in hernia repair and breast reconstruction, and it is working

toward developing replacement livers, hearts and kidneys.

Church welcomes the involvement of a big pork producer.

"Even though we've got companies like eGenesis that would make

the first pigs, you still need someone who will breed them and

do it to scale," he said.

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen and Michael Hirtzer; Editing by

Leslie Adler)