Farm to pharma
Jan. 17, 2017
A lab technician works at Scientific Protein Laboratories (SPL) of Waunakee, Wisconsin. SPL is the largest heparin producer in the US. It was founded by Oscar Mayer and the Univ. of Wisconsin.
Editor’s Note: In the early hours of Aug. 31, 2010, Aris Landon Chant made his entry into this world. In an otherwise normal delivery, Aris was born nine days premature. Common to preterm birth babies, he was born with respiratory distress syndrome (RDS). In this condition, the lungs are underdeveloped and unable to support normal breathing. Aris’ condition was particularly important to me – he is my grandson.
Respiratory distress syndrome is a condition marked by the insufficient presence of pulmonary surfactant. Pulmonary surfactant is a compound which allows the lungs to expand easier and more evenly. Without it, the lungs become damaged and oxygen absorption is greatly inhibited. Untreated, it often leads to death.
Years ago, a preterm baby with RDS had a 30 percent chance of survival. For years, scientists tried to create a synthetic surfactant to treat RDS, but were unsuccessful. In 1991, a Buffalo, New York, physician discovered that a surfactant extracted from bovine lungs called “calfactant” would effectively replace the missing surfactant from RDS lungs. A porcine surfactant soon followed. These animal-derived pharmaceuticals dramatically improved the survival rate for RDS to 95 percent. It’s likely that use of this compound saved Aris’ young life, as it has for tens of thousands of premature babies a year since then.
Animal-derived medicines today play a critical role in human health. My family experienced it firsthand with Aris’ birth, but the reality is that millions around the world benefit from animal-sourced pharmaceuticals without even knowing it.
To appreciate the importance of animal- sourced pharmaceuticals, it’s necessary to understand that not all compounds can be synthesized in the lab. Dan Schaefer, professor of Animal Sciences at the Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison, explains: “Anything that would be purely a protein in nature could be synthesized using biotechnology. Anything that would be a combination of protein and carbohydrate or a protein and a lipid is not possible to synthesize using biotechnology. Anything that is purely carbohydrate or purely lipid in nature couldn’t be synthesized using biotechnology.”
Pure proteins, such as insulin, can be made synthetically. Pulmonary surfactant, which is a combination of protein and lipid, cannot be synthesized, and by necessity must be harvested from natural resources.
Modern pharmacology traces its roots to the early 1800s, when the properties of the botanically derived drugs such as morphine, quinine and digitalis were finding human application. By the late 1800s, scientists began to find success in applying animal-derived medicines toward human health.
In the 1890s, products harvested from the adrenal glands of sheep began to be used to treat autoimmune disorders such as Addison’s disease. This marked the first successful instance of applying animal-derived drugs to save human lives. In 1916, the anticoagulant properties of heparin were discovered. In 1922, the successful application of porcine- and bovine-derived insulin became available to treat Type 1 diabetes, providing an immediate impact on what had previously been a death sentence. Since those early years, hundreds of applications of “farmaceuticals” have been found.
Animal-derived drugs perform such varied functions as: treating symptoms of menopause, helping the skin to heal from severe burns, controlling anemia, preventing blood clots and improving blood clotting ability. Beef and pork heart valves are more successful than synthetic valves for heart valve replacement. Autoimmune diseases, hay fever, asthma, heart disease, blood disease and skin allergies are all treated with drugs derived from animals. This only scratches the surface of modern applications. Current research is aimed at expanding the list dramatically.
SPL-owned trucks go to various US slaughtering plants to procure the raw material used at its facility.
Heparin for life
Heparin is a good example of a drug whose use has not only expanded over time, but is finding new applications today. Heparin was discovered 100 years ago when its properties as a blood anticoagulant were recognized. It wasn’t until 1936, however, that clinical trials cleared the way for the safe application of heparin in human health. Heparin is one of the drugs on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) list of essential medicines.
Scientific Protein Laboratories (SPL) is the nation’s largest producer of heparin. The Waunakee, Wisconsin-based facility is a great example of the confluence of the meat industry, academic research and pharmacology to improve modern human health.
Mike Reardon, chief commercial officer at SPL, recounts the company’s origins: “SPL was created as a joint endeavor between the Univ. of Wisconsin and Oscar Mayer 40 years ago. In the early ’70s, Oscar Mayer owned their slaughterhouses. There was a joint activity between the Univ. of Wisconsin and Oscar Mayer that created the first heparin process and ultimately Scientific Protein Laboratories.”
SPL is very focused in its pharmaceutical production. “We are all porcine, all the time. When you walk up to SPL, you see a statue of a pig in front of the facility,” Reardon says. “Heparin is derived from the intestinal mucosa of the small intestines of the pig. The mucosa lining the small intestine in pigs is rich in heparin.”
How important is heparin to modern day medicine? “Heparin created the basis for modern surgery,” Reardon explains. Without heparin, surgery becomes problematic. “If you’re in for heart bypass surgery, or hip replacement, the last thing you want is a blood clot forming and causing a problem.
“Heparin introduced intravenously by the physician keeps the blood from clotting during surgery. When the surgery is complete, and you want the blood to clot, the anticoagulant activity can be switched off.
“Anywhere there is surgery, you’re going to find heparin. It’s a critical lifesaving, life enabling, life extending drug for surgical patients,” Reardon says.