Animal by-products are used in human medicine
Animal-derived medicines today play a critical role in human health.
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 (RDS) 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 science 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.

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.

To read the entire report, “Farm to pharm,” read the January cover story of MEAT+POULTRY, available digitally at the week of Jan. 9, 2017.