Strange medical products from animals


Would you ever consider injecting a product taken from a pig’s intestine into a patient then reversing its effects with a syringe full of fish sperm? Believe it or not these are just some of the wacky products we use in everyday medicine. Ben Chandler takes a trip to the pharmaceutical zoo, to uncover some of the strangest uses of animal parts he can find.


Pigs have the misfortune of having similar sized organs to humans and being readily available. Porcine tissues are already used throughout numerous fields of medicine and the humble pig is felt to be one of the best candidates for future production of organs for transplant into humans. Among the many porcine derived products include:


Heparin – One of the oldest drugs still in current use, heparin was initially extracted from dogs liver. Controversy was sparked in the USA in 2008 when a number of patients suffered adverse effects from heparin with numerous deaths. When the drug was traced back to its sources it was discovered that some of the heparin was extracted from pig intestines on small unregulated farms in China. A potentially extremely expensive lawsuit is ongoing.

Insulin – Although newer insulin formulations are human insulin, porcine insulin is still available. It only differs from human insulin by a single amino acid – another example of how genetically similar we are to pigs!

Pig skin – Aside from being a key ingredient in pork scratching production, pig skin is also used in some special wound dressings.


Observers noted over a hundred years ago that maggots did a great job of cleaning wounds and that soldiers who had maggots in their wounds seemed to be more likely to survive. The invention of penicillin stifled interest for a while but with the advent of drug resistant bacteria maggots are back.


Another medieval sounding treatment that is also making a comeback. Leeches have been used for over 3,000 years and modern medicine still finds them useful. Historically leeches were used to treat many ailments but today their use is mainly in plastic surgery to extract blood from swollen grafts. Unlocking the components of leech saliva has also given a new range of anticoagulant medications.


Possibly the most surreal use of an animal product. Protamine sulphate is derived from salmon sperm and it is used to reverse the effect of heparin. It is associated with some nasty side effects when injected.


Honey has been used as a medicine for thousands of years, and recently has been shown to have antibacterial properties. It may even be a useful weapon against MRSA.