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
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
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,”
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
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