Experts are concerned of possible heparin shortages, as demand for the widely used blood thinning drug grows. Cattle are being introduced as an additional source of Heparin (which is primarily derived from pigs), in order to reduce the risk of shortages. In a recent study co-authored by Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine; researchers discovered that heparin derived from cattle (bovine heparin), has the same anti-clotting properties as heparin derived from pigs (porcine heparin).
The research discovered minor differences in the characteristics (structural and molecular) of bovine and porcine heparin, but they did not affect the drug’s anticoagulant properties. The research, which was co-authored by Jawed Fareed, PhD and colleagues is published in the journal Clinical and Applied Thrombosis/Hemostasis. Fareed is a professor in the Department of Molecular Pharmacology and Therapeutics and Department of Pathology and director of the Hemostasis and Thrombosis Research Program at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.
Fareed has researched heparin for forty years and is one of the world’s leading heparin scientists. He is also the author or co-author of over 200 research papers on heparin. The study’s title is: “Analysis of Heparins Derived from Bovine Tissues and Comparison to Porcine Intestinal Heparins.” Some of the other Loyola co-authors are Debra Hoppensteadt, PhD and Walter Jeske, PhD. Nine other co-authors, including corresponding author Robert J. Linhardt, PhD, are with the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
Heparin is a blood thinner (anticoagulant) and one of the world’s most commonly used drugs. It is used to prevent and also treat blood clots in veins, arteries and lungs. It is also used prior to surgery in order to reduce the risks of clots. Heparin can be injected or administered intravenously. Heparin is also utilized in machinery that comes in contact with blood; like kidney dialysis machines and test tubes. Currently, heparin utilized in the U.S. comes from the intestines of pigs which are killed for meat. The heparin is taken from what would otherwise be a waste product. Three quarter of the heparin utilized in the U.S. is from China; the world’s largest pork producer.
“Because heparin is a widely used essential drug with no medical alternatives in certain clinical situations, the U.S. healthcare system could be vulnerable to fluctuations in the crude heparin supply,” as per the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. They are evaluating the likelihood of reintroducing bovine heparin in order to avoid possible shortages. Another concern is contamination of the global porcine heparin supply.
Bovine heparin could be taken from the intestines and lungs of cattle that are killed for meat. Since cows are bigger than pigs; one cow can produce greater amounts of heparin compared to a pig. Bovine heparin was withdrawn from the market in the 1980s due to concerns that it could cause thrombocytopenia or be contaminated with mad cow disease. Fareed says that due to advancements in manufacturing and quality control that have resulted in purer forms of heparin; those concerns have been put to rest.
Some professionals are still concerned about bovine heparin considering it has a different chemical structure than porcine heparin. To address this concern, Fareed and colleagues compared individually manufactured batches of bovine heparin to individually manufactured batches of porcine heparin. The anticoagulant activities of the two groups were the same.