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Pigs Go From Lab to Lunch

Genetically altered animals end up as sausage, but no harm to diners

THURSDAY, Aug. 23, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Three genetically altered pigs were supposed to end up in an incinerator, not as sausage on a plate. But things didn't go according to plan, say officials at the University of Florida.

Luckily, the sausage made from the pigs didn't seem to harm the people who ate it, even though the animals had been injected with disease-carrying genes and put to death with heavy doses of chemicals. While the meat didn't hurt anyone, the case may serve as a warning to scientists and institutions about fine tuning some procedures.

Philip Collis, the university's associate director of environmental health, says the pigs were developed with a human gene for diabetic retinopathy, an ailment that causes blindness in diabetics.

The gene "was supposed to induce a retinopathy in the eye of the pig that would be similar to human retinopathy," Collis says. Researchers intended to test another gene on the pigs to correct the eye problem.

But they never got to try a cure because the pigs never came down with the eye disease in the first place. "The project ended up being a bust," Collis says.

But that wasn't the last of the pig problems The animals were killed and their eyes were removed for further research. The rest of the animals were sent to an incinerator facility. There an employee stole three pigs and sent them to be made into meat, reportedly for his family.

An alert butcher noticed the pigs had no eyes and called the university. But it was too late. A police report said some of the sausage already had been eaten at various places, including a funeral reception.

Collis says the transferred human gene affected only the pigs' eyes and would not have created a health hazard. Some people were concerned about the anesthetic and heart-stopping chemicals used to kill the pigs, but they didn't appear to create any problems.

Police say the employee who stole the pigs was charged with misdemeanor theft and felony dealing in stolen property.

Collis says the university reported the incident, which happened last January, to a number of government agencies, including the National Institutes of Health. Spokesman Donald Ralbovsky says the agency is happy with changes the university has made to prevent future problems, including painting a distinguishing mark on animals pegged for disposal.

"The university was very cooperative," Ralbovsky says. "Of course, there was also a police intervention in this particular situation. This was more of a law enforcement problem than one of research."

As far as the agency is concerned, Ralbovsky says, "I think this case is closed."

What To Do

The pigs in Florida were being used to find new treatments for diabetic retinopathy. For more about the condition, check Yahoo! Health.

Read the police reports compiled by The Gainesville Sun about the pig theft and attempts to track down people who ate the suspect sausage.

SOURCES: Interviews with Philip Collis, Ph.D., assistant director of environmental health, University of Florida, Gainesville, and Donald Ralbovsky, spokesman, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Md.; July 28, 2001, New Scientist
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