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Genetically Modified Pigs for Allergy-Free Medicine and Food

An allergy is a person’s immune system's way of reacting to certain plants, animals, foods, insect bites, or other things. The immune system protects people from diseases by fighting germs (bacteria and viruses). When someone has allergies, the body overreacts and tries to "fight" ordinary things (grass, pollen, or certain foods). This causes sneezing, itching, and other reactions or symptoms (body changes that lets a person know something is not right).

The substances that cause allergies (grass, pollen, foods, pet hair, insects) are called allergens. When the immune system reacts to one of these allergens and a person has symptoms, the person may be allergic to it.

Some people are allergic to pork and other meats. The allergy comes from a sugar found in pork and other meats called alpha-galactose (alpha-gal, for short). The alpha-gal sugar makes its way into many things we use, including food, medicines, and make-up, and can make that allergy happen. It mostly starts when a Lone Star tick (an insect) bites the person and transmits alpha-gal sugar into the person's body. Later, the person becomes allergic to alpha-gal sugar when eating meat.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a genetically modified pig whose body does not make the alpha-gal sugar. The FDA is a part of the federal government that protects our health by making sure foods, medicines, and other things we use every day are safe to use. A genetically modified pig is one that has had its genetic material changed by adding, changing, or removing DNA in a way that does not happen naturally. For the pork allergy, it is to remove the alpha-gal sugar. DNA contains the instructions needed for organisms (animals, plants, humans) to grow, live, and make offspring.

Genetically modified pigs become meat that is safe to eat and their organs and tissues are safe for transplants and other medical uses for people who are allergic to the alpha-gal sugar.

A transplant is a type of surgery. A doctor removes a damaged organ or tissue inside the body and replaces it with an organ or tissue that is not damaged. A blood thinner called heparin is made from pig intestines (the body part that helps to break down food during digestion). People who are allergic to the alpha-gal sugar would be able to use heparin made from genetically modified pigs. Doctors are looking at using skin from pigs without alpha-gal sugar for skin grafts (patches of skin that are removed from one area of the body and attached to another area) for people who have skin that was badly burned from a fire.

Before the pigs other animals that have been genetically modified to help people are salmon, goats, chickens, and rabbits.

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