Medicinal bacon? It’s not hogwash.
The same lab that genetically engineered pigs to grow organs for human transplantation has also become an unexpected pork product purveyor —specifically, to sufferers of a mysterious, tick-borne red meat allergy.
With Epi-pens handy, several patients have already tested the free and exclusive lab-made bacon, thanks to an exclusive partnership with scientists who hope to study the mechanisms behind the disease, according to a new report in The Atlantic.
The illness was first described in 2008, arising out of a bite from a Lone Star tick. Though doctors aren’t yet sure how this reaction gets triggered, it causes the immune system to attack a sugar molecule found in meat, called alpha-gal — hence what’s also known as alpha-gal syndrome.
It’s now estimated that tens of thousands of Americans likely have some form of alpha-gal — and thus red meat — intolerance. In lower concentrations, the molecule can also be found in dairy products, and a number of other goods potentially derived from non-primate mammals, including some beauty products and drug therapies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
People who have never faced issues with red meat prior to infection have found themselves sick and hospitalized after just one bite of burger, with symptoms ranging from discomfort gastrointestinal to full-blown anaphylaxis.
That’s where Revivicor comes in, as it happens that alpha-gal is the same stuff that’s known to cause the human body to reject pig organs for transplantation. In January, the company successfully developed a swine born without alpha-gal — called GalSafe pigs — so their organs could be harvested instead amid widespread shortages of viable human donors.
A stroke of genius led them to wonder whether their alpha-gal-free pigs could also be enjoyed commercially.
In 2020, the Food and Drug Administration awarded the Maryland-based lab permission to use their pigs on people in hopes of developing medical products without the triggering ingredient. Though commercial food avenues were not a focal point of their study, they told the Associated Press at the time, they were then aware of their pigs’ potential for those with alpha-gal syndrome — and so became only the second genetically modified food animal to be FDA-approved.
Now, the company is exploring a mail-order business to send people refrigerated packages of alpha-gal-free bacon, ham, ground pork, chops and pork shoulders to people affected by the syndrome.
One of Revivicor’s test subjects happens to be someone with a lot of experience with livestock: Steve Troxler, the agriculture commissioner of North Carolina. Meat-eating was considered a prerequisite for the role.
“Part of my job as a commissioner of agriculture is to be able to eat more barbecue than any human being on the face of the Earth,” he told The Atlantic.
The well-connected state official would help the lab get expedited approval from the FDA in hopes of seeing GalSafe cuts on store shelves — which could happen soon enough, as University of North Carolina researchers are launching a study to confirm the specialty pork’s safety for human consumption.
Those who already tried the GalSafe meats reported that it tastes just like normal pork.
“The only bad thing is it reminded me how delicious pork is,” said Sharon Forsyth, a blogger who runs the site Alpha-gal Information.