HomeHealthHeparin breakthrough – anti-clotting drug now made synthetically

Heparin breakthrough – anti-clotting drug now made synthetically

Some of you may know of the drug ‘heparin’. First used in the 1930s, it is an anticoagulant – a fancy term for anti-clotting. If you’ve had a heart attack or experienced angina, there’s a chance you’ve had it prescribed. 

What many people don’t know is that the manufacture of heparin requires the use of pig intestines. The thought of that will bother some and not others. However, the use of pig intestines does bring elements of risk to the manufacturing process. Which is why the news that an entirely synthetic version of heparin has been developed has the medical world excited.

Why is the use of pig intestines to manufacture heparin risky?

To be clear, the associated risks are low, but any process that involves the use of an animal-based ingredient comes with risk. And the same principles that apply in a restaurant or your kitchen at home apply here.

Undercooked, uncooked or ‘off’ animal produce can contain harmful bacteria. And yet we see occasional outbreaks of food poisoning, sometimes in restaurants with a reputation for health and safety.

In the manufacture of animal-based drugs, the risk of contamination or infection, however small, remains. In ideal circumstances, drugs derived from animals are sourced from small herds kept in isolation to prevent viral infections.

Heparin, however, is so widely used its manufacture requires a lot of pig intestines. In fact, a single year’s worth of heparin supply requires trillions of pigs. That’s not millions, or even billions, but trillions.

The sheer volume of production brings with it potential ‘weak links’ in the health and safety process. 

What about warfarin?

One of the main alternatives to heparin is warfarin, but that comes with its own risks. If the dosage given is too high, it can be fatal. What’s more, there is no antidote. (Warfarin is actually also used as a rat poison.)

By contrast large doses of heparin can be administered safely. And unlike warfarin, it does have an antidote.

Overcoming the barrier to synthetic heparin

One of the things that makes heparin effective is that, unlike most other drugs, it isn’t a single, small molecule. It’s actually a diverse mixture of large chains of sugars, or a ‘complex sugar’.

The very word ‘complex’ points to difficulties in the manufacturing process. And that’s why, until now, we’ve relied on pig intestines, which provide that ready-made complex sugar.

Coming up with a viable way of synthetically producing heparin has occupied years of Professor Jonathan Dordick’s time. And now Prof. Dordick and his team at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York have achieved that aim. 

As with almost all such development projects, the next hurdle is figuring out a way to upscale the manufacturing process. Replacing trillions of pig intestines is no easy task. But Prof. Dordick and his team are already well on the road to achieving that.

“We think it could be sold within the next four to five years, maybe even less,” said Prof. Dordick.

Only a few years ago the suggestion of synthetically manufactured heparin would have drawn a response from some of, ‘Yeah, and pigs might fly’. Now, it looks like synthetic heparin will fly – and there will be no pigs required.

Have you ever been prescribed heparin? Were you aware of its porcine origins? Let us know via the comments section below.

Also read: Nine things you should know if you’re taking blood thinners

Health disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Andrew Gigacz
Andrew Gigaczhttps://www.patreon.com/AndrewGigacz
Andrew has developed knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income and government entitlements, as well as issues affecting older Australians moving into or living in retirement. He's an accomplished writer with a passion for health and human stories.


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