Who knew pigs are being raised to be more than just a centerpiece for this year's Christmas dinner?
Today, the animal is raised in many highly regulated farms so it can be used for medical purposes. Its small intestines are harvested only to become tools in a human surgeon's repair kit, while the rest of the pig goes straight to the food industry.
Cook Biotech, a medical products firm in West Lafayette, Ind., processes one layer of the pig's small intestine to create a strong material that allows human cells to grow.
One surgeon who has used Cook's cell-regenerating product is David Edelman, team physician for the NBA's Miami Heat.
Athletes frequently approach Edelman complaining about the same problem.
They have a persistent pain, sometimes a burning feeling, on the surface of their abdominal muscle or groin area. Some bulging can also occur. Usually, it's because they have a hernia- a hole in a muscle that can affect anyone who is active, whether they run, lift weights or give birth.
Edelman gives patients a number of options to fix the problem.
They can use a polypropylene product- woven fishing line that tends to be stiff- or human cadaveric tissue that might be too elastic, wear out or be susceptible to transferring human diseases.
But Cook's Biodesign product offers another option that doctors may choose to use. The product made from a pig's small intestine helps human tissue regenerate.
Last year, a baseball player came to Edelman with a sports hernia. The tear was about an inch in the groin area. With a sports hernia, the muscle is so strong that locating the problem is more difficult. They chose to use Biodesign to repair the tissues.
"He was in pain, couldn't steal a base or hit a baseball," said Edelman, also a general surgeon at Baptist Hospital of South Florida.
The operation was set for Memorial Day weekend and by July 4, he was back on the field.
A pig's small intestine has several layers, including one called the submucosa that produces enzymes. Cook takes the submucosa and removes all the cells, creating a fibrous material called the extracellular matrix.
When placed on a wound or broken tissue, the human body uses it as a scaffold or guide for a patient's own tissue to remodel and repair itself. Cells gradually enter and continue to use the extracellular matrix to form new tissues. Once the tissue has grown, the scaffold goes away, leaving the patient's own tissue in its place.
"This matrix material helps the cells in the body know what kind of cell they are and makes them feel more like at home- sort of a wound healing process," said James Kramer, a professor in the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology at Northwestern University.
Taking the material from a pig makes sense.
"It's cheap and the material is not very different in vertebrates, there's enough similarity with the matrix material in humans and pigs that it's realistic to do this," said Kramer, who is not involved in the Cook firm.
Cook Biotech President Mark Bleyer said, "We believe that this product is very safe and is used by half a million patients already."
Risks such as infection, occasionally associated with using human cadaver tissue, and high demand for soft tissue transplants have encouraged Bleyer to promote Biodesign and other tissue repair products from other companies.
"This whole area of extracellular matrix is getting big," Bleyer said. "It is a product that can do anything that a cadaveric tissue can do." Cadaver tissue comes from humans who before their deaths agreed to donate body tissues when they die.
Cook Biotech's first product came out in 1998, years after it partnered with Purdue University, where the regeneration capabilities of a pig's small intestine were initially discovered.
Today, the Biodesign product is being used in various procedures including fistula repairs and staple line reinforcements on torn muscles.
Fistula problems occur when a sore develops into an abnormal hole between body cavities. Symptoms include pain and fever. The Biodesign product is used to close the hole.
Along with fixing sports hernias, Edelman has used the product on patients needing an ulcer repair, and on those who have lost muscle walls or skin.
Edelman said he likes to use the Biodesign product for "young, healthy, active people who do not smoke" and it's not for everyone.
"What other ways it can help patients is still being determined," Edelman said.
And there are some risks from using the animal-based product, Kramer of Northwestern University said.
Though the proteins between vertebrates are similar enough, there are still some differences that companies like Cook Biotech have to watch out for when preparing the products.
"They have to be careful, there's a chance the body can see it as foreign object in the body," Kramer said.
Edelman said, "I can't tell you it's perfect, but it's a really intriguing way to repair muscles."