(NBC) - The pig is an under-estimated animal. Known better for its slovenly habits and portly physique, the pig is actually a medical hero.
"Pigs have tremendous research potential," said Dr. Steve Stice, a stem cell researcher at the University of Georgia. "And a lot of different diseases are being studied through pigs."
Pigs are more like humans than you might think. Their physiology, their biochemistry, their cell biology is similar to ours.
"It's best to study something like heart disease in an animal that has developed heart disease," Stice said. "And that happens in pigs."
A team of researchers at the University of Georgia, led by Dr. Franklin West and Stice, have discovered a way to create pig stem cells.
"It's really a very magical process," Stice said.
Stem cells are genetic building blocks. Tell them to become a kidney or an eyebrow or an ankle bone and they do. By experimenting with stem cells in pigs, we can learn how to make them work in humans.
"Eventually some day we may be able to transplant whole organs from pigs into humans," Stice said.
Researchers expect to change the genetics of pig stem cells, and eventually human stem cells, and eliminate organ and tissue rejection.
"We can then make a cell that hopefully won't be rejected by the human immune system and therefore would last a long period of time," Stice said.
The technology could be used to save endangered species like the dying lions of the Serengeti.
"You could actually collect cells from some of these deceased lions and turn them into stem cells and use them for cloning or other applications and actually re-introduce the genetics back into the population," West said.
It is likely that young people today suffering from type one diabetes will benefit from this research well within their lifetime.