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Tick Red Meat Allergy: Pig Research

Jenn Smith

Posted on November 05 2019

LYNCHBURG, Va. (WSET) -- A shocking number of people are living with an allergy that's potentially deadly.

The tick that latched on to you during a walk in the woods or gardening in your backyard is behind it. It's not Lyme Disease or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, but something called alpha-gal and doctors say the number of cases are surging.

Rick Leeming's life changed dramatically when a tick bit him eight years ago.

"I broke out all over my body. Just red, beet red and itching like crazy," Leeming said. "I woke up and was like what in the world?"

That tick gave Leeming alpha-gal, a tick-borne allergy that makes him allergic to four-legged mammal meat, like beef or pork.

"Just a little bit of bacon in a salad can set you off and it's pretty scary," he explained.

The situation is not only scary but potentially deadly.

The alpha-gal allergy is a growing problem for people in the Southeast, particularly in your backyard, according to allergist Dr. Joey Lane.

"About 20 percent of the population in this area -- Central Virginia -- has a positive blood test to alpha-gal," Lane explained.

Not all of those people will have an allergic response. Lane said it's all kind of a mystery, but they have been able to trace alpha-gal to the bite of a Lone Star tick.

Here"s how it works: humans don't have the carbohydrate alpha-gal in their bodies, but all other four-legged mammals do. When a tick bites, say a deer, and then bites you it can transmit alpha-gal. Your blood sees alpha-gal as a threat, so it develops antibodies that are stored in your body.

It could take days or weeks to manifest but when you eat meat again it sets off the allergic reaction.

Symptoms of an alpha-gal allergy commonly appear three-six hours after eating meat (e.g., beef, lamb, pork, venison, and rabbit) or exposure to products containing alpha-gal, which for a long time made diagnosing it difficult.

Lane said it’s so prevalent now, so doctors know what to look for early on.

"They're about 5,000 patients in the world who have it and we believe that about 10 percent, 500 or more, are here in the central Virginia area," Lane said.

Lane sees the patient population dealing with typical allergic responses (hives, anaphylaxis). Gastroenterologist Dr. Bikram Bal is diagnosing people with alpha-gal who complain of nausea, vomiting, bloating, and diarrhea.

"We were almost diagnosing four to five patients a week in my office," Bal said.

Both doctors said a rainy spring kick-started the surge in alpha-gal victims.

With many of you getting out and enjoying the outdoors this fall, doctors expect more new cases.

You can grow out of it-- however, doctors don’t know how long that can take. In the meantime, you have to stop eating things like pork, beef, and lamb.

But that’s not always easy since cross-contamination can set patients off.

Living with alpha-gal has changed the way Leeming serves up family-style dinner at his own restaurant, The Spring House.

"We do everything we can to eliminate those things in the cooking process," Leeming said. "For instance, we used to cook with ham hocks or bacon for our green beans. We use chicken broth now."

While he'd love to have a steak again, Leeming has embraced his new diet because it's just not worth the consequences.

There is some good news for these patients, who are also meat lovers, a herd of pigs developed in a Blacksburg lab could be a game changer not only on the dinner table, but also with all of the other products containing alpha-gal.

Dr. David Ayares' team at Revivicor cloned the first alpha-gal free pig in 2003. They did it by removing the nucleus from an unfertilized egg and replacing it with a skin cell that has an inactivated alpha-gal gene.

It took researchers about three years of cloning sessions to be successful, but they have now bred 11 generations of alpha-gal free pigs.

The FDA just gave Revivicor approval to start testing pigs to put on your dinner table.

"So we can use the pig to start doing a sensory study," Ayares said. "How does it taste? Does it have the same texture and smell."

If it works out, a significant group of people in our area can enjoy pork again.

"We have this vision that in the not too far future -- a few years -- you are going to open your menu and have the vegetarian option, the gluten-free option and the gal safe or gal free option," Ayares said.

The benefits could go beyond the table, he said.

"There are hundreds of products that come out of a pig -- whether it's enzymes or heart valves or heparin or collagen or gelatin that these very sensitive patients have to be concerned about," Ayares explained.

Long term Revivicor hopes the gal-free pigs can be used for organ transplants in humans.

Cow and pig organs can't be transplanted in the human body – in part – because the body rejects the organ because it has alpha-gal in it.

If they can develop more alpha-gal free animals – like these pigs – they can potentially help save lives.

Story re-posted from ABC News 13. Written by Danner Evans.