Dec 10, 2021

Return of Alpha Gal

Tuck your napkin under your chin.  We’re about to serve up a tale of love, loss, and lamb chops - with a side of genetic modification.

Several years ago we told a story about Amy Pearl. For as long as she could remember, Amy loved meat in all its glorious cuts and marbled flavors. And then one day, for seemingly no reason, her body wouldn’t tolerate it.  No steaks. No brisket. No weenies. It made no sense: why couldn’t she eat something that she had routinely enjoyed for decades? 

It turned out Amy was not alone. And the answer to her mysterious allergy involved maps, a dancing lone star tick, and a very particular sugar called Alpha Gal. 

In this update, we discover that our troubles with Alpha Gal go way beyond food. We go to NYU Langone Health hospital to see the second ever transplant of a kidney from a pig into a human, talk to some people at Revivicor, the company that bred the pig in question, and go back to Amy to find out what she thinks about this brave new world.

The original episode was reported by Latif Nasser, and produced by Annie McEwen and Matt Kielty. Sound design and scoring from Dylan Keefe, Annie McEwen, and Matt Kielty. Mix by Dylan Keefe with Arianne Wack.

The update was reported and produced by Sarah Qari. It was sound designed, scored, and mixed by Jeremy Bloom. 

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[RADIOLAB INTRO]

SARAH QARI: Recording. Walking into NYU. This building is huge!

WOMAN: Hello.

SARAH: Hello.

WOMAN: All right. How are you?

SARAH: I'm doing well. Good. I don't know. Do we shake hands? I don't know. I haven't—haven't done this in a really long time. So ... [laughs]

WOMAN: Okay. Let me see. You ready for the Radiolab?

ROBERT MONTGOMERY: Yes, ready.

WOMAN: Yup, everybody come on in.

SARAH: Awesome!

LULU MILLER: Hi, I'm Lulu Miller.

LATIF NASSER: And I'm Latif Nasser. This is Radiolab. Today we have a story about a medical breakthrough ...

LULU: ... that is going to break the heart of one of our all-time favorite humans and guests on the show.

SOREN WHEELER: Hello.

SARAH: Hi guys!

LATIF: Hello!

LULU: Hello!

SARAH: [laughs]

LULU: Comes to us from our producer Sarah Qari, who you just heard wandering the halls of NYU's Langone Health Hospital.

SARAH: So this is really exciting.

LATIF: As well as our executive editor, Soren ...

LULU: Wheelie, Wheelie ...

LATIF: Wheeler.

SOREN: I can give us a start if you want me to.

SARAH: Yeah. Actually, yeah. You should tell us how you even had the idea.

SOREN: Yeah. I mean, I had the idea by someone else having had an idea that I saw their idea in a newspaper.

LULU: It's called reading.

SOREN: No but, like, I don't know, what, a month ago maybe? I was reading the news. The news I was reading was the New York Times.

LATIF: Heard of it.

SARAH: Yeah.

LATIF: Heard of it.

SOREN: It was like a science section news thing, and the article was basically announcing this big breakthrough.

[NEWS CLIP: News this evening about a major medical breakthrough.]

[NEWS CLIP: It's been called an astonishing step in medicine.]

SOREN: Basically, a group of surgeons had managed to put a pig kidney into a human being—and it worked.

[NEWS CLIP: Successfully transferring a pig kidney to a human patient.]

SOREN: For the first time ever, the person's body didn't reject the kidney which, when you think about all the people waiting on kidneys, you know ...

LATIF: Game changer.

SOREN: Yeah.

SARAH: Yes.

SOREN: Totally. So I'm just—I'm reading through this article, but then in the middle of it there's just a couple lines about a particular pig that they used for this kidney that drew this very weird line back to a story we had told here on Radiolab. That's when I—so I brought in Sarah to, like, report this whole thing out.

SARAH: So I actually went to talk to the doctor who did this transplant.

SARAH: Hi, how's it going?

ROBERT MONTGOMERY: Nice to meet you. How do you do?

SARAH: Good. How are you?

SARAH: His name is Robert Montgomery. He's at NYU Langone Health, and he's the head of transplant surgery there.

SARAH: So when did it first occur to you that transplanting a pig kidney into a human would even ...

SARAH: I just started with, like, the most basic question, which is like, why would you do this?

ROBERT MONTGOMERY: Because we don't have an adequate supply of organs for the people who need them when they need them. And so a lot of people die waiting. And so the idea of a xenotransplant ...

SARAH: And he just made the argument that using animal kidneys was the best way he could think of to ...

ROBERT MONTGOMERY: Make a dent into that waiting list of 90,000 people. And beyond that, 750,000 people who are on dialysis.

LULU: And do you know, is this person still walking around? And is the pig still walking around?

LATIF: Mmm. Good questions.

SARAH: So, no.

ROBERT MONTGOMERY: We did this transplant. And someone who had been declared brain dead who had wanted to donate their organs but were unable to donate their organs, and so their family essentially donated their whole body so that we could test a xenotransplant.

SARAH: Like, we're gonna try this crazy thing that's never been done and see how it goes.

ROBERT MONTGOMERY: And determine whether this was gonna be safe to move into living humans.

SOREN: I guess a proof of concept type thing.

LULU: Right.

SARAH: Yeah. But the family agreed, and the doctors did the transplant. And they could see, you know, like, that it worked and the body wasn't rejecting the kidney. The kidney was doing it's kidney stuff. But the sort of amazing thing is ...

ROBERT MONTGOMERY: Actually, as we sit here today, the same thing happened yesterday.

SARAH: While we were sitting there talking, he told me ...

ROBERT MONTGOMERY: You know, we—at two in the morning, we did our second xenotransplant.

SARAH: "We actually just did the second one. You want to see?"

LATIF: [gasps]

LULU: What?

SARAH: Like, happening right now?

ROBERT MONTGOMERY: That's happening right now. And if you wanna, you know, come down with me, I'll show you what we're doing. So ...

LULU: Whoa!

SARAH: And I was like, "Um, yes?" And he took me downstairs to this big room.

SARAH: Oh, wow. It's like a conference room. Okay.

SARAH: It was totally silent. There was like a window looking into this operating room.

SARAH: Okay. Can we walk up to the glass?

SARAH: And you could see just like the jumble of machines and medical equipment.

SARAH: What are we looking at?

ROBERT MONTGOMERY: All right. So there's a ventilator over here.

SARAH: And in the middle of the room, you could see this person.

ROBERT MONTGOMERY: That's the recipient.

SARAH: Lying on the table covered by this blue surgical shroud.

SARAH: You can see the patient's body sort of rising and falling as they breathe.

ROBERT MONTGOMERY: Yeah, that's the ventilator.

SARAH: And they actually attached the kidney at the person's thigh because they sort of want to be able to watch it, and they're not worried about the person getting up and walking around. So there's this incision at the thigh. And in that oval incision, you could see the pig kidney kind of like poking out. It was, like, covered by plastic. And Dr. Montgomery told me that, you know, when a body rejects a kidney ...

ROBERT MONTGOMERY: The kidney will literally turn black moments after the blood goes into it.

SARAH: But you could see, like, with this one, it was bright pink and kind of amazingly just like the first one ...

ROBERT MONTGOMERY: Within moments it started to make urine, believe it or not. And so we knew right away that it was working.

LATIF: Wow!

ROBERT MONTGOMERY: See right where it's dripping in?

SARAH: Yeah.

ROBERT MONTGOMERY: See how fast it's dripping? All that urine is coming out from that kidney. And you can see ...

SARAH: So, you know, this was just the second one that worked, but eventually Dr. Montgomery and his team want to get to the point where they can do clinical trials on people who are walking around and doing things and living their lives, and who would hold on to this kidney.

LULU: Wow.

SOREN: Allow me to presume that you have two questions—which I think you do, even if you haven't said them yet—which is like, one, why did this never work before?

LATIF: Mm-hmm.

SOREN: And then two, why are we even telling you this? It's not our usual schtick to just pick up a New York Times science news article and relay that to you.

LATIF: Fair.

SOREN: Which brings me back to that little part of the article that piqued my interest in the beginning, because the pig that they got the kidney from to do this was a very special pig. Normally, pigs and other mammals that aren't primates have a sugar in their body that our bodies don't have, and so we don't like it or see it as foreign. And that's why usually an organ from another animal would get rejected. But this pig had been genetically modified. It had had the gene that makes that sugar removed, so it didn't have that sugar. Which is part of the reason this worked. And that sugar just so happens to be called "alpha-gal."

LATIF: Alpha-gal!

LULU: Gaaal!

LATIF: Hey, our old friend!

LULU: There it is! There's the Radiolab connection.

LATIF: Our old frenemy.

SOREN: Yeah. So here's what we're gonna do. For those of you who aren't nodding along with our knowing noises, we're gonna play the original alpha-gal piece. But even if you have heard it, stick around because after the piece we're gonna dig more into this special pig, find out how it connects back to this story in a very particular and almost maybe sort of disturbing way.

LULU: All right.

LATIF: Cool. Let's do it.

SOREN: Here's the original.

 

***

 

AMY PEARL: Good. Okay.

DAN PASHMAN: Is your mic on?

AMY PEARL: Yeah. I'm getting—this is making me nervous. Maybe I should get my EpiPen.

DAN PASHMAN: Are you allergic to radio greatness?

AMY PEARL: Not that I know of. I haven't been really exposed to it yet.

DAN PASHMAN: [laughs]

AMY PEARL: Anyway, let's go!

DAN PASHMAN: Are we rolling? We're good? We're going?

JAD ABUMRAD: We are rolling.

DAN PASHMAN: Okay.

ROBERT KRULWICH: I'm Robert Krulwich. This is Radiolab. And today we're gonna begin with a conversation between Dan Pashman …

DAN PASHMAN: Okay.

ROBERT: Host of a podcast here at WNYC called The Sporkful. It's about food. And Amy Pearl.

DAN PASHMAN: Amy?

AMY PEARL: Yes.

ROBERT: A digital producer here at the station who likes food.

AMY PEARL: Mmm.

ROBERT: And the conversation they had was about something that happened to Amy, which she never expected, certainly didn't want, and yet, it could happen to any of us at any time.

DAN PASHMAN: So years ago, before any of this happened to you, just tell me what was your relationship with meat?

AMY PEARL: My relationship with meat?

DAN PASHMAN: Yeah.

AMY PEARL: Well, you know how when you're little and your mom is like, "You can have any special dinner for your birthday?" My dinner was meatballs. And she was like, "Except meatballs. They're so hard to make." So it was pot roast.

DAN PASHMAN: [laughs]

AMY PEARL: And then Peter Luger, you know Peter Luger's?

DAN PASHMAN: Famous steakhouse in Brooklyn.

AMY PEARL: Yeah. I used to go there quite often, and I live there. And I have a Peter Luger credit card.

DAN PASHMAN: Are those hard to get?

AMY PEARL: You know, I don't—I don't know how they give them out but nobody seems to have one. I don't think they give them out anymore, but I mean, I was very into Peter Luger. I was living in Williamsburg, and it just—it opened at, like, one o'clock every day, and you could just walk in at one. They had an amazing bar. There's no tablecloths on the table. These old German waiters, they'd bring out your porterhouse for three. They'd put a little plate upside down and then put the big platter on top of it so it's tilted, and all the juice runs to the end. And then they, like, have this special double spoon thing that they somehow, like, scoop juice onto your steak. And oh, so good!

AMY PEARL: And also, like, the smell of burning fat from a hamburger.

DAN PASHMAN: What about hot dogs?

AMY PEARL: Oh my God. I love hot dogs so much. When you bite into them and they're like, klack, and have, like, a snap. And, like, having a weenie roast out in the open air, it's just—it's like the—oh, God, it's so good. Anyway, I was always very into meat.

DAN PASHMAN: What changed?

AMY PEARL: Oh my God. It was terrible. It was—what happened was I was having this beautiful—it was springtime. I was having a beautiful leg of lamb with some neighbors and we, like, put it on the grill, and it was just a delicious, beautiful dinner. And I had served with it some ramps that I foraged in my mom's yard.

ROBERT: A ramp, by the way, is just a wild onion.

AMY PEARL: And so we had this delicious meal and then, you know, I went home and I was going to sleep at, like, midnight, like, a few hours later. And I just felt weird. I was like, "Ooh, God. Something's wrong. I feel, like, really anxious, like something's wrong with me." And I went in the bathroom and I, like, look in the mirror, and my face was, like, all weird looking, and I was like, I kept laying down and be like, "I'll just sleep it off, whatever it is." But every time I laid down, I felt like I was gonna faint. So, I was like, prop myself up. And I was like, "Ugh!" God, I was having terrible, like, stomach cramps and just like a weird feeling of impending doom, you know?

AMY PEARL: But just like anybody, I'm just like, "Just get a good night's sleep. This will pass." I, like, splashed a little water on my face. I mean, I don't know what made me think this, but I thought, like, maybe a snail, a tiny snail was on one of the ramps that I ate, and it was, like, poisoning me somehow. You know, snails, I mean they probably poison us.

DAN PASHMAN: [laughs]

AMY PEARL: So I called my friends in the morning and I was like, "Hey, how you guys doing? How was dinner?" And they were like, "Oh, it was so great!" And I was like, "Really? It was so great? Nothing weird? Like ..."

DAN PASHMAN: [laughs] No horrific panic attacks?

AMY PEARL: And they were like—and they were like, "Oh, that was so lovely. Thank you so much. Let's do it again. Blah, blah, blah." And I was like, "Wow, I really had a rough night." But I didn't think anything of it, and I went on with my life, you know? Just like, whatever. And then about a week or two later, I made some cheeseburgers. And I ate a cheeseburger, and I was watching Goodbye Mr. Chips, a really tear-jerking movie and a good book, too. And about a couple of hours after I ate, I, like, started to feel really weird. Again, I was, like, feeling like I was—like, had to stand up. I was like, "I think I'm gonna faint. I feel really lightheaded. I can't catch my breath. I feel, like, really woozy." But any time I laid down, I really felt like I was gonna faint. So I was, like, trying to stay sitting upright, and I was like, "Oh my God, this is very similar." And I ran into the bathroom and I was, like, looking in the mirror, and lo and behold, I had hives all over my stomach, and then they started coming out on my hands. And I was like, "Oh my God, something's happening." And at one point I did get up and unlock my door, because I did feel like I'm gonna pass out, call an ambulance and then they're not gonna be able to get in. So I mean, I was a little bit afraid of what was happening.

AMY PEARL: And when I woke up in the morning, the first thing I did was Google "Sudden meat allergy," because I was like, "This seems like an allergy," and the only thing that was the same was meat. And I'm going through and, like, the second thing that came up was this article that was like, "Florida Man Has Sudden Meat Allergy." I was like, "Oh my God, I think is it possible I could have this?" And so I made an appointment with my doctor. I brought in the article. I'm like, "I'm going to be this person, but I can do it." I had the article in my pocket.

DAN PASHMAN: What person?

AMY PEARL: You know, the person who goes to their doctor with something I found on the internet.

DAN PASHMAN: [laughs]

AMY PEARL: So I brought the article. It was in my pocket and, like, I got through the whole, like, checkup and I was too chicken. I went—when I was paying the receptionist, I pulled it out and gave it to the receptionist, and I was like, "Could you give this to the doctor?" So that was, like, the best I could do. And then I did call my doctor and had a conversation with him on the phone asking him if I could get tested. And he was like, "No, there's no such thing as a meat allergy. Blah, blah, blah."

PETER SMITH: So some people think allergies are just, like, in your head.

ROBERT: This is science writer Peter Smith. We got in touch with him after we heard Amy's story because Peter is an investigator of many things including strange allergies.

PETER SMITH: And people are like, mushrooms hurt them or they think ...

LATIF NASSER: Wi-fi hurts them.

PETER SMITH: Yeah, wi-fi hurts them. And I don't know ...

ROBERT: And when our producer Latif Nasser and I got into the studio and we told him about Amy's story. He said ...

PETER SMITH: Yeah. All right.

ROBERT: I know exactly who you need to talk to.

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: Hello?

LATIF: Yeah, hi!

PETER SMITH: Thomas Platts-Mills.

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: This is Thomas Platts-Mills. That's right.

LATIF: How are you?

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: I'm very well.

ROBERT: Dr. Platts-Mills is down at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He's a professor, and he works at an allergy clinic.

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: In an allergy clinic, we are constantly sifting through stories, which not only you don't believe, but are actually nonsense. It's simply ...

ROBERT: And he told us in the last 10 years or so, he started hearing lots of stories just like Amy's.

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: Right.

ROBERT: Somebody shows up at the office convinced that they're allergic all of a sudden for no apparent reason to red meat.

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: The first time I heard it was probably as early as 2004.

ROBERT: And every single time he heard the story, he would tell the patient exactly what Amy's doctor told her.

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: No.

ROBERT: No way.

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: No, no, no.

ROBERT: It's not possible.

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: Right.

ROBERT: So what was wrong with these complaints, you know, in an orthodox medical way?

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: Oh, everything.

ROBERT: Everything.

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: Adults don't become allergic to something they've eaten for 40 years out of the blue, and certainly not red meat.

ROBERT: So you're basically saying to these patients, "I think you must be making this up, because I can't explain it"

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: I don't use language like that. [laughs] I say, "There, there."

ROBERT: I was trying to give you your inner voice.

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: Oh, you don't want to know what doctors are thinking in their inner voices. You know, you often think in the middle of an interview, "Is it possible that he's got, you know, some ghastly disease?"

LATIF: Mad cow.

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: Yeah, you know?

ROBERT: The point is that when he'd hear a story like Amy's, he just ...

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: Didn't believe it.

ROBERT: But then, everything changed. Thanks, oddly enough, to a cancer drug.

PETER SMITH: This new cancer drug called cetuximab.

[NEWS CLIP: In New York today, Martha Stewart was indicted on criminal charges relating to ...]

ROBERT: This is the very drug that got Martha Stewart in all that trouble for insider trading.

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: You remember that? And went to jail for six months?

ROBERT: Yeah.

ROBERT: Anyway, very promising, exciting new drug. But then ...

PETER SMITH: Doctors were giving people this injection, and they would just like, end up on the floor of the doctor's office.

ROBERT: In shock?

PETER SMITH: Yeah, they would be in anaphylactic shock.

ROBERT: Their hearts would start beating faster, they'd get short of breath, they'd get stomach cramps. Their immune system would start to overreact to something new and alien that came in with the drug. Basically, a classic allergic reaction.

PETER SMITH: So the mystery lands on Thomas Platts-Mills's desk.

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: Yes. So we were asked to look at cetuximab.

ROBERT: To see if they could figure out what was causing the reaction.

PETER SMITH: And he tests two groups of blood: a control sample, and then people that have this allergy.

ROBERT: And he quickly zeroed in on a particular molecule, a sugar that was part of the drug.

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: This sugar, galactose-alpha-1, 3. Galactose or alpha-gal.

ROBERT: Alpha-gal?

PETER SMITH: Yeah.

ROBERT: As in a particularly great lady? Better than the Beta or Gamma gals?

PETER SMITH: [laughs]

LATIF: Yeah, it's like alpha male, but alpha female didn't quite have a ring to it.

ROBERT: Anyway, it seemed like alpha-gal was the culprit.

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: Yeah, and if you'd told me four years earlier that there's a whole lot of people out there who are allergic to this sugar, I'd have thought you were smoking, you know, vaping again.

ROBERT: Because not only does this sugar alpha-gal show up in the cancer drug—and this is where we get back to Amy—it also shows up in the blood of mammals.

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: All non-primate mammals.

ROBERT: So every time you eat ...

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: ... lamb ...

ROBERT: ... or ...

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: ... beef, goat, camel.

ROBERT: Even ...

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: Tripe.

ROBERT: Or ...

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: Pig's kidneys.

ROBERT: You're also eating alpha-gal.

AMY PEARL: So I'm reading this article and it says, like, it's this thing called alpha galactose or alpha-gal or whatever.

ROBERT: So it made no sense that someone like Amy, who'd been eating meat all her life would suddenly somehow be allergic to alpha-gal.

AMY PEARL: I just was like, this was so stupid.

ROBERT: So one day ...

AMY PEARL: It's getting to be barbecue season. I usually have, like, a couple of barbecues where I just do a whole pork butt and a brisket, like hang out all day doing it. And I was like, very wanted to do that. And I was like, "I'm just gonna not eat meat and not even know?" So I was like, "Forget it. My doctor won't test me. I'm gonna test myself." So I was gonna be very careful. I got a thing of Benadryl. And I was like, "I'm not gonna do it alone. I'll do it with my mom." My poor mom. [laughs] And so I went up to my mom's and she's, like, really into food too. So she was like, "Oh, this is so exciting! I got two porterhouse steaks on sale at Stu's."

DAN PASHMAN: [laughs] Did you explain to her what you were testing?

AMY PEARL: Yeah, I did, because I had talked a little bit about it with her. So, like, fire up the grill, do the porterhouse. I even think I, like, Instagrammed it as a joke. Like, "Ha ha ha. This might be the last time you hear from me." But, you know, we're having a nice summer day, just me and my mom having our steak. I only ate, like, a couple bites because I was slightly nervous. And I was, like, sitting in the grass with my dog and reading a book and trying to think, like, do I feel normal? Which, try it, folks. It's hard to figure out. When you start asking yourself, "Do I feel normal? Does this—am I breathing? Does my stomach hurt? Is something wrong?" And I was like, after a while I was like, "I feel pretty good."

AMY PEARL: And the neighbor came over and was, like, chatting with us, and it was in the middle of that conversation where I was like, "I kind of feel like I have to go the bathroom. But maybe I just have to go the bathroom." So I went to the bathroom, and I was sitting there and I was like, "Oh God, something feels bad. I'm—" and then I was like, "Oh God, I definitely—this is not right. Something's wrong." And I went in to get the Benadryl, and I took the Benadryl and I went on my bed in the guest room at my mom's house. I was, like, sitting on there and I was like, "I just don't feel right. Maybe if I just take a deep breath. I'll just stand up. Maybe I'll just put my hands over my head like this. Oh, that does feel slightly better, I think." Then I was finally like, "I think we should go to the hospital."

AMY PEARL: And I went outside. I was like, "Mom, I think you have to drive me to the hospital." She was, like, talking to her neighbor like, "What? Oh my God, honey! What? Oh, let me go change my clothes." Change my clothes. Like, Mom, you know, she's not wearing the hospital-level clothes. So I'm like, "Okay, Hurry up, mom. Mom, are you ready? Mom?" And then I was like, while she was changing her clothes, I suddenly was like, "Oh my God." Got my wallet out and my cell phone and I, like, threw it towards my mom's bedroom door. And I was like, "Here's my insurance card. Call an ambulance!" And I just, like, hit the floor.

AMY PEARL: Eventually, the ambulance arrives and I got stabilized. I was strapped to the thing. I was in the emergency room. Like, they were shooting me full of, I don't know what, epinephrine and adrenaline. And the little, like, 12-year-old emergency room doctor runs in and he was like, "I looked it up on the internet. Alpha-gal. Fascinating!" "What? That's terrible. I've never heard of that. Could it be true?" "Yes, it's true." Like, they're all having this discussion there. Then when I went back to my doctor after that I was like, "Hey just got out of the emergency room because they tested me for alpha-gal and I'm allergic to meat."

ROBERT: So this is an allergy.

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: Yeah.

LATIF: So all of a sudden, you're looking at the quote "crazies," and they're not so quote "crazy" anymore.

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: Absolutely. We suddenly had a blood test. And of course, what turned out is all these patients who'd been telling us this story were allergic to alpha-gal.

PETER SMITH: But ...

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: But ...

PETER SMITH: ... it's still like a mystery.

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: Right. There are patients ...

ROBERT: Thomas Platts-Mills couldn't figure out why people like Amy, who had lived for 40 years eating porterhouse steaks at Peter Luger's with a credit card, why would she suddenly develop an allergy now? There has got to be some kind of trigger.

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: Yes. So we were looking for anything that could explain it.

PETER SMITH: It could be a mold. It could be a nematode.

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: A worm or a fungus.

ROBERT: But then he looked again and noticed that all the people who had had bad reactions to the cancer drug ...

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: They were in a particular area of the country. It was Virginia, North Carolina, Southern Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas. No cases in Salt Lake City. No cases in Denver. Just smatterings down the West.

ROBERT: So he turned to his technician Jake and he said ...

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: I said, "You've got to Google every map you can find and say what matches that area?

ROBERT: Creatures or diseases that appear wherever the allergy appears. So Jake starts Googling.

PETER SMITH: Googling and Googling and Googling. And ...

ROBERT: And eventually, he comes across a map that ...

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: Matches where the cases are very beautifully. The maximum area for Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

PETER SMITH: So he made this little map and it's like the shaded dark areas of the country are places with Rocky Mountain spotted fever. And then there's like some stars where, you know, this allergy had appeared.

LATIF: Yeah.

PETER SMITH: And they overlap.

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: Ah, very interesting.

PETER SMITH: And then all of a sudden it clicks. Rocky Mountain spotted fever is a tick-borne disease.

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: This is the distribution of the lone star tick.

ROBERT: And actually, just a little before this, it turns out an allergist down in Australia, Sheryl van Nunen ...

SHERYL VAN NUNEN: First name Sheryl. S-H-E-R-Y-L. Van Nunen. V-A-N and then N-U-N-E-N. And I'm from the Tick-Induced Allergies, Research and Awareness Center in Sydney, Australia.

ROBERT: She says she was now being visited by all kinds of people who claim suddenly to be allergic to meat.

SHERYL VAN NUNEN: And whenever I take a history, so for example, I'd ask them was there a family history of rhinitis, eczema, asthma, stinging insect allergy, and they'd say they've all been bitten by ticks.

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: When we started asking patients, we suddenly heard the stories just out the kazoo.

ROBERT: But at this point, Dr. Platts-Mills, all he has is a map, some stories and a hunch.

LATIF: Right.

PETER SMITH: So ...

ROBERT: So what does he do?

PETER SMITH: He decides—well, maybe I'll just do this to myself.

ROBERT: He does what?

PETER SMITH: He decides to test it on himself.

ROBERT: Oh my God!

PETER SMITH: He sort of like denies that he did it intentionally.

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: I know I had no intention.

PETER SMITH: I mean, he—I think he also likes to walk and amble and think about things.

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: Right.

PETER SMITH: So he goes for a long walk along the Blue Ridge Mountains.

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: And I knew I wanted to be off trail because I'm actually rather allergic to humans.

LATIF: [laughs]

ROBERT: So he's walking and walking and walking, and along the way ...

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: Ah.

ROBERT: ... he bumps into a whole bunch of ticks.

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: And if you walk into a nest of those things ...

LATIF: Oh my God, this sounds like a nightmare.

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: Yeah, absolutely. I got 200 seed ticks.

PETER SMITH: Oh boy.

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: And then in November of that year, I was taken out to dinner. And the lamb chops were particularly delicious, and the French wine was delicious. And six hours later, I woke up covered in hives.

PETER SMITH: He's got an allergy to red meat.

ROBERT: All just because of a ...

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: Tick bite.

PETER SMITH: Tick bite.

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: That's right.

ROBERT: We'll bite you right back after this.

[ADVERTISEMENT]

ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich. This is Radiolab. Now we go back to Amy just when she's discovered that the allergy to meat that she's developed comes from a tick bite.

AMY PEARL: A tick bite? Hang on a second. Because, like, a few weeks before all this started happening, as I said, I was foraging for ramps in my mom's backyard, and I had a tick on my arm.

ROBERT: Now it turns out that not only was that tick bite a terrible thing for Amy, it was a kind of double tragedy.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, David Attenborough: Hidden from view amongst the trees and in the undergrowth ...]

ROBERT: And I think it's only right at this point to back up ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, David Attenborough: ... is a fascinating world of wonders.]

ROBERT: ... and consider the story from the tick's point of view.

GRAHAM HICKLING: Okay, so I'm Graham Hickling. I am a wildlife disease ecologist at the University of Tennessee.

ROBERT: So I was wondering if you could help us tell the story of, in this case, of the lone star tick that bit Amy.

GRAHAM HICKLING: Oh, yeah, sure. So they start off in this little pile of eggs, perhaps a mass of 2,000 eggs under the leaves.

ROBERT: The proud mom who just gave birth ...

GRAHAM HICKLING: At that point, she's just a kind of a withered husk.

ROBERT: Meaning dead. But anyway ...

GRAHAM HICKLING: A few weeks later, those eggs will hatch and this mass of 2,000 baby ticks emerge from under the leaves.

ROBERT: And could I see them with my naked eye?

GRAHAM HICKLING: If you ran into a mass of them all up together, you would feel like you've got a little smudge of dirt, and then the dirt starts walking.

ROBERT: [laughs]

GRAHAM HICKLING: And so they'll just climb up and they'll, you know, potentially all be on the same leaf or the same twig looking for something to feed on.

ROBERT: Now one teeny little tiny problem for these teeny little tiny ticks ...

GRAHAM HICKLING: Is that they dry out.

ROBERT: So when they come up from under the leaves, they come up ...

GRAHAM HICKLING: ... briefly ...

ROBERT: ... and then they go back down, get a little water, come back up, get thirsty, go back down ...

GRAHAM HICKLING: ... and rehydrate.

LATIF: So they, like, commute?

GRAHAM HICKLING: Exactly. And we refer to the behavior as "questing."

LATIF: Oh, questing!

ROBERT: Questing.

ROBERT: So if you were one of these little baby ticks up questing for food ...

GRAHAM HICKLING: While you're up there, you are essentially Velcro.

ROBERT: Because on each one of your little legs ...

GRAHAM HICKLING: You have little kind of hook-like structures. And so you're flat against the leaf.

ROBERT: Sort of sniffing in the air with your two little front legs.

GRAHAM HICKLING: That can detect CO2, heat, movement.

ROBERT: So let's say one day you're sitting there on your leaf, and you pick up the scent of a nearby mouse.

GRAHAM HICKLING: Mice are the potato chips of the ecosystem. Everything eats them.

ROBERT: Which means you might be about to have your very first meal. So you ...

GRAHAM HICKLING: ... basically stand up ...

ROBERT: ... stretch out all your little legs ...

GRAHAM HICKLING: ... and do a tick dance. And so it's kind of interpretive dance-like movements.

ROBERT: ... while you're waiting for that mouse to come just close enough that you can grab onto it. So you're dancing and you're waiting, and you're dancing and you're waiting, and you're dancing and you're waiting, and you're dancing and you're waiting.

GRAHAM HICKLING: To be honest, you are probably going to wait your entire life and die unfulfilled, because there are 2,000 of you starting off, and a stable tick population there's only going to be two of you that survive.

ROBERT: Oh my gosh!

ROBERT: So 1,998 little baby ticks are born ...

GRAHAM HICKLING: ... and then that's it for them.

ROBERT: But let's say that you're one of the lucky ones. And one sunny day, there you are hanging out on your little leaf when you detect two incoming mammals. One is a 40-year-old hominid, the other is her dog. So you perk up, you thrust your legs out ...

GRAHAM HICKLING: ... wave, do the tick dance.

ROBERT: And say that you're waving and you're dancing and you're hoping and you're waving and you're dancing and you're hoping and you're waving and you're dancing and you're hoping, and slowly, the dog's getting closer and closer and closer. And you reach out with one of your tiny little limbs so you can grab on and eat and survive. But ...

AMY PEARL: But the reason that tick ended up on me was I slept in bed with my dog naked. I mean, she's always naked, but I was also naked. I mean, that's not gross. I mean, does that sound weird?

ROBERT: No, but how do you know that's when it happened?

AMY PEARL: Because I know that, like, I did a good tick check on myself and I took a shower and everything. And then in the middle of the night, I woke up with an itching sensation. And I went to the bathroom, and I couldn't really see what was on—like, something was on the back of my arm, and it was a tick.

ROBERT: So as the tick is biting into Amy, what is it giving Amy that's gonna make her allergic to meat?

PETER SMITH: Well, actually, I need to stop you there, Robert.

SHERYL VAN NUNEN: Hmm, difficult one, Robert.

PETER SMITH: I don't know the answer to that. Hmm.

ROBERT: That's Peter Smith, and ...

SHERYL VAN NUNEN: Well ...

ROBERT: ... rejoining us is Sheryl van Nunen, the scientist.

SHERYL VAN NUNEN: It's all up for speculation.

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: We don't really know. But here's the theory. So ...

ROBERT: Normally, when you eat a piece of meat, you put alpha-gal in your stomach and your stomach digests it, and it's in your body, and it's no big deal.

SHERYL VAN NUNEN: But the tick cunningly ...

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: ... will drill into you, poke into you ...

SHERYL VAN NUNEN: ... and injects ...

PETER SMITH: ... its saliva.

LATIF: We'll call that "tick spit."

PETER SMITH: ... tick spit into its victims.

ROBERT: Straight into its victim's largest organ ...

PETER SMITH: ... the skin.

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: And tick spit has an anti-clotting factor, an anesthetic, anti-inflammatory compounds.

SHERYL VAN NUNEN: And ...

ROBERT: ... we think ...

SHERYL VAN NUNEN: ... the alpha-gal.

ROBERT: Now Peter says the thing about the skin is ...

PETER SMITH: ... the skin is like this enormous, like, surveillance system.

ROBERT: It's always on the lookout for invaders. So when the alpha-gal comes through your skin covered by all that bad, bad tick spit stuff ...

PETER SMITH: That's gonna really, like, set off your immune system.

ROBERT: The immune system freaks out.

PETER SMITH: Like, oh! Uh-uh!

ROBERT: And the alpha-gal, covered now in bad spit almost sort of ...

SHERYL VAN NUNEN: ... by mistake ...

ROBERT: ... gets labeled bad. And now it's on the bad guy watch list. So ...

SHERYL VAN NUNEN: ... therefore ...

ROBERT: ... the next time you eat meat ...

SHERYL VAN NUNEN: ... the meat comes in ...

PETER SMITH: ...and then ...

ROBERT: ... the body unleashes wave upon wave upon wave of chemical attacks ...

PETER SMITH: ... to do battle against this alpha-gal.

ROBERT: And this reaction gets way out of hand. You got so many antibodies multiplying, multiplying, multiplying, multiplying, making you—rather in this case, Amy, feel just horrible.

PETER SMITH: Right.

AMY PEARL: I mean, it's very weird. It sounds like a science fiction movie. It sounds like the beginning of a science fiction at least kids' book, let's not go to movie. But, like, it's just strange.

ROBERT: Which all goes to say that this really is a kind of double tragedy for Amy and her tick.

PETER SMITH: Yeah, because ticks didn't evolve to bite humans.

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: Right. We're a mistake.

PETER SMITH: Like, we have opposable thumbs.

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: We're either gonna pull them off ...

AMY PEARL: I actually woke my mom up, and she helped get it off.

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: ... or if they drop off, they're gonna drop off in an airport terminal, or a Walmart car park or somewhere like that.

ROBERT: Or a shag carpet.

THOMAS PLATTS-MILLS: Or a shag carpet indoors. And—and they're doomed.

ROBERT: And for us, well, we lose something that, historically anyway, is a big part of who we are.

PETER SMITH: Yeah, because we have—we adapted in the grand evolutionary scheme of things to, like, eat flesh, to eat meat.

LATIF: Yeah.

PETER SMITH: Yeah.

AMY PEARL: I mean, I'm actually sitting here picturing a steak. But actually the thing—I mean, hot dogs. Like, wrap ramps around a weenie and roast. Yum, that sounds so good, my mouth's watering. [laughs] Weenies and ramps.

DAN PASHMAN: Yeah.

AMY PEARL: But I am going to my allergist tomorrow because I did—you know, I was reading about this allergy a lot when I first got it, and I read that for some people, the allergy can fade away. So I'm gonna get a blood test to see what my blood level of alpha-gal is. So I'm a little ...

DAN PASHMAN: So what are you hoping for tomorrow?

AMY PEARL: I want to be normal again.

ROBERT: That was the end of the Dan and Amy conversation. She was gonna go to the doctor, get herself tested, find out whatever. So we asked her back in ...

AMY PEARL: Okay.

ROBERT: ... to find out what happened.

AMY PEARL: So I actually did get an appointment with my allergist. Dr. Corn. [laughs] Her name is Dr. Corn. She's really nice. So I got the appointment, I got the blood draw, whatever. And a few days later, my doctor called me and she said that my numbers were still really high. And I was like, "Well, how high are they?" And she was like, "Three." And I was like, "Three? That's not high." And she's like, "They're supposed to be, like, one or something." So they had gone down, but they were still, you know, many times more than they should be. So ...

ROBERT: But when you left and you were waiting for the call, were you waiting with the hope that you would soon be eating a bit of hot dog?

AMY PEARL: I mean, honestly, I was hoping no.

ROBERT: No?

AMY PEARL: No.

ROBERT: Wait a second, you are the big, the great ...

AMY PEARL: No, I was afraid that she would be like, "Oh my God, your numbers are so low. I think you could probably eat meat. And let's do a food challenge." And I would be like, "Ahh!" Because, like, that's such a scary memory. Yeah, I don't—you know, actually just the other night I was eating at an Indian place and I was eating vegetarian but, like, I felt something and I pulled it out, and in the dim light of an Indian restaurant—like, why are they all lit like that? I was like, "Was this bacon?" And I suddenly—you know, like you just get this drop in your stomach and I'm like, "What time is it? Four hours from now if I—" and, you know, because there's something about it being delayed that makes it so difficult. It just is like ...

ROBERT: Like a suspense movie where you're the victim.

AMY PEARL: It's like it could happen in the next three hours. Or maybe not. I don't know. I mean, honestly, the only thing that—the real reason I want to be able to eat meat is so that I will be prepared to eat it in case of emergency. I mean, I went on a canoe trip in the Adirondacks and I was like, "Well, what happens if I get stranded out here? And like, what if I have to hunt, but I can't even eat meat? I would have to hunt fish. But then when the lake freezes over, what would I eat? I can't survive. Something's wrong with me!" I feel evolutionarily challenged. This is what I think about before I go to bed every night: would I be able to survive if I had just what's on me right now: a pen, underwear, my dog? And so I mean, that's a real issue. It's not a real issue, obviously. It's never gonna happen, I live in Brooklyn. But I do, for some reason, I always think, like, I want to be prepared in case. But I don't think I would go back to eating meat, necessarily.

ROBERT: Like, you are still more frightened than game, so to speak.

AMY PEARL: Well, also, like, I wish I could be a vegetarian for ethical reasons because it's not so much just the eating meat, but just like, you know, the factory farming and that kind of stuff, so I feel, like, morally superior now. I can be like, "Well, I don't eat red meat." Of course, I'm forced to not eat it, but at the same time I would if I had the—if I had the willpower, I'd probably go that way anyway. And then also, I think it's great. It's like, we're all evolving to be on this planet, which is getting harder to be on. And we know that meat takes a lot of resources. And, like, now I don't—now I'm not doing that. So, like, the tick is helping me evolve into a better human being.

ROBERT: Like, so one could, instead of thinking of the tick as your teeny weeny irritating enemy, you could think of it as a guiding light, making the world safer to share with your fellow Earthlings.

AMY PEARL: Yeah.

DAN PASHMAN: So you may have lost your relationship with meat but at least you have your moral superiority.

AMY PEARL: Yeah. I mean, I am superior.

DAN PASHMAN: [laughs]

AMY PEARL: Yeah.

ROBERT: So huge thanks to Amy Pearl for telling a story which never stopped—never stopped being scary and wonderful. And to the fellow who brought her into the room, Dan Pashman, whose podcast, The Sporkful, it's all about food in every conceivable way. Like, he talks about eating it, preparing it, worrying about it, as you've heard, getting sick from it, getting fat from it, whatever. And you can find his show on iTunes or Stitcher or on the internet at Sporkful.com.

ROBERT: And this story was produced by Annie McEwen and Matt Kielty, with reporting help from Latif Nasser. See you next time.

 

***

 

LULU: All right. So that was the original piece. We're gonna take a quick break now, but when we come back Sarah and Soren are gonna follow the thread from Amy's allergy to this brand new genetically-modified pig that can help a human who needs a kidney, and also maybe solve Amy's problem.

LATIF: Or maybe make it worse.

LULU: Stick with us.

LATIF: Latif.

LULU: Lulu.

LATIF: Sarah? Soren?

SOREN: Yep.

SARAH: Yep.

SOREN: Okay, so as we learned at the top of the show, five years after we ran that story, some doctors at NYU successfully transplanted a pig kidney into a human patient. And one of the reasons that worked was because the pig that the kidney came from had been genetically modified to not have alpha-gal, the alpha-gal sugar in its body.

DAVID AYARES: It's really only the food that was kind of eluding us, because we've known and have also been pursuing various medical device applications of the GalSafe pig. You know, we've had conversations ...

SARAH: So I actually called up the company that makes this pig—they call it the "GalSafe" pig. The company itself is called Revivicor.

DAVID AYARES: Started out as the US division of the Scottish company that cloned Dolly the Sheep.

LULU: Oh!

LATIF: Oh!

SOREN: The UK company that did Dolly the Sheep, this is sort of like their American offshoot.

LATIF: Got it.

SARAH: Yeah.

LULU: Okay.

DAVID AYARES: And from there, we actually cloned the world's first pigs.

SARAH: So anyway, I talked to David Ayares. He's the company's chief science officer. And also John Bianchi.

JOHN BIANCHI: Lead product development enterprises at Revivicor. And I also am in charge of regulatory affairs.

SARAH: So at what point—and either of you can take this—at what point did you guys realize, okay ...

SARAH: And I just wanted to ask them, like, okay, you made this pig for all these medical transplant reasons, but did you know about the whole food side of things?

JOHN BIANCHI: I'll take this one, Dave, unless ...

DAVID AYARES: Sure.

JOHN BIANCHI: I'm the poor sap that had to work with the FDA. I shouldn't say that. It was a very collaborative effort with the FDA.

SARAH: And they told me that while they were in the middle of getting FDA approval for this pig to be used for medical reasons, they heard a certain radio show.

JOHN BIANCHI: After listening to the Radiolab episode, the original episode, and listening to Amy Pearl, we thought, "Hmm, why not just expand the application to include food?"

DAVID AYARES: We realized that the pigs we had developed so that their organs wouldn't be rejected would also be a food source for these patients that have the alpha-gal allergy, or the red meat allergy.

SARAH: Okay, wait. So hearing Amy Pearl on our show had something to do with thinking, "Oh, we should make this a food product?"

JOHN BIANCHI: It was absolutely a motivation of mine after listening to Amy.

LULU: What?

LATIF: No!

SOREN: Yeah. Totally.

SARAH: Yes. So now because of Amy Pearl and her story, this pig is now FDA approved for medical devices and things like that, and transplants, but also for food. To use the meat of those pigs to make pork products that, like, people with alpha-gal syndrome can eat.

LULU: Wow!

SOREN: So of course, we immediately called up Amy Pearl and were like ...

SOREN: Amy Pearl, Amy Pearl, Pearl, Pearl, Pearl.

SARAH: Hi!

AMY PEARL: Hello.

SOREN: We got something to tell you.

AMY PEARL: Look at this!

SOREN: Oh no.

SARAH: Oh my God!

SOREN: How do you always have, like, tiny little bundles of cuteness in your life?

SARAH: When we talked to her, she had a couple of really small foster kittens scrambling up and down her shoulders and mewing in the background.

SOREN: So we explained to her the whole deal. There's this pig that doesn't have alpha-gal that's being used for transplants.

SOREN: From which you could make meat that would be safe to eat for people like you, Amy Pearl.

AMY PEARL: Ah. That's kind of—I mean, I just—I feel kind of disgusted.

SOREN: Hmm.

AMY PEARL: Because it's been a long time, long time since I've had pork or beef. I've found plenty of delicious things to eat that aren't bacon.

SOREN: And she said that, you know, even if there is now some pork that's totally safe, she still feels sort of the same way she did at the end of the original show, which is that she's kind of just over red meat.

AMY PEARL: I've kind of moved on from it, honestly. And ...

SOREN: And happily, it sounds.

AMY PEARL: Yeah. I feel like it's better for my peace of mind, it's better for my health, it's better for the planet's health. And I feel lucky and happy. It's kind of like ...

SARAH: But then, of course, you know, we had to tell her that, you know, we talked to the guys at Revivicor, and that she and her story were sort of an inspiration for this meat becoming available to people.

SARAH: I'll just play you a clip of something they said to me.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Bianchi: It was absolutely a motivation of mine after listening to Amy. When I heard the Radiolab podcast, I'm thinking, "Well, we hold the hammer!"]

AMY PEARL: Oh God. Great. I mean, it's so funny. [sighs] Oh, well. But it's fine. I mean, I guess, he sounds like such a nice guy.

SARAH: Say more. Say more in what you're feel—what were you thinking as you heard it? You sort of like hung your head.

AMY PEARL: I mean I was thinking that ...

SOREN: Never should have gone on Radiolab?

AMY PEARL: [laughs] No, I'm just, like, always thinking misanthropic things. But I was thinking, like, here's a person who's like, hears me just like, talking about how delicious meat is and juices and they're like, "Yeah! I love meat too!" And they're like, "She seems sad! I'm gonna make meat for her!" And then it's like, "But I actually don't really—I actually—" "Anyway, I can make it for you! I figured it out! I have the hammer!" "But I actually don't want—" "It's okay, I'm making it! Here it is!"

SARAH: I think she felt like, because of her, they'd gone and solved this problem that she didn't even really want solved.

AMY PEARL: It's just kinda like, you would, like, go to some kind of special FDA store to buy some special genetically-modified pork just so you could have a bite of some kind of meat. I mean, it just was like—I don't know. Do you guys ever get into philosophy? You ever—it's just like immediately when you say, "Oh, they created this pig that you can—that alpha-gal people can eat," my next thought is like, "What is the meaning of life? Why am I here?"

SOREN: [laughs]

SARAH: Wait. Why?

SOREN: [laughs] Do you think you could close the gap between those two for us a little bit? Like, what are some intermediate steps?

SARAH: Yeah.

AMY PEARL: Because it's like, well, is that good or bad? Well, I guess it's good for people who want to eat pork, but it's bad for the pig. It just immediately brings to mind, you know, how to live. Do you live to satisfy your desires and be happy? Or do you live to not harm others? Or why are we even here? Are pigs below us? Are they above us? Is it okay to put a pig first? Like, what if someone's kid is dying of kidney cancer?

SOREN: Well, see that—that's now how, like, you know, this question has another whole layer, because it's not just that they made a pig for people who got bit by a tick but wish they could still have a hot dog. They also then, it turns out, made a pig that, like, could maybe have a kidney that could save a life where there's no other kidney available. Or maybe in the future, more and more and more things like that.

AMY PEARL: But it's just—it's just like, when you start thinking about breeding animals just for organs for people, it's like re-deciding all over again, like, should we be eating another animal that might be intelligent? It's like you're just answering all those questions again but for another purpose, because, like, you can get organs, like, kidneys out of other people, and they're—it's like safe, and ...

SARAH: I mean, yeah, that's a good point. And I asked this guy, this doctor about this. And, you know, was sort of pushing him on, like, why—like, you've just opened the door to, like, a whole new way of exploiting animals. And I think his thing—which I'm convinced by, honestly—is like, look, there are 90,000 people right now—right now—that need a kidney. And when it comes to, like, making the decisions for yourself or for a loved one, if you're like, "They need a kidney." And you have the option to put a pig kidney in them? You're like, "That's not even a question." You know, we eat millions of pigs anyway. I guess on balance, I feel okay. You know ...

AMY PEARL: I mean, I totally agree with you, why don't they just make a fake kidney?

SARAH: Yeah, I mean, I ...

AMY PEARL: I mean, if somebody—like, imagine humans did not think, like, "Oh, it's okay to take—to, like, kill an animal just to get its kidney for someone else."

SARAH: Yeah.

AMY PEARL: It was like, not even something that crossed their mind. We would have invented a plastic kidney by now, probably.

SARAH: So at this point in the interview, unfortunately, we actually had one more thing that we had to tell Amy that we learned from the guys at Revivicor.

SARAH: Also Amy, I do have to tell you something that you might like even less.

AMY PEARL: What? They named the—they named the pig "Amy" before they hit it with the hammer?

SARAH: Yeah. Yeah, they did.

AMY PEARL: What?

SARAH: Yeah.

AMY PEARL: Are you kidding us? Are you kidding?

SOREN: No.

SARAH: No, I'm not. I'm not kidding.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Bianchi: By the way, the first pig that went to market we named "Amy."]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Sarah Qari: After Amy Pearl?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, John Bianchi: Of course! Well, I did in my mind. I'm not sure Dave approved that name but it ...]

AMY PEARL: What did they name? The one who donated the kidneys?

SARAH: No, no. So the first ...

SOREN: The first one that they ...

SARAH: The first one that they slaughtered for meat.

AMY PEARL: I see. I see. [laughs]

SARAH: They named it Amy. And unofficially. But the—you know.

AMY PEARL: Okay.

SARAH: They did, yeah.

AMY PEARL: I mean, I can see why they picked something that was, like, motivating for them. Like, humanizing and motivating in their, like, quest to solve this thing that they decided was a good problem to put their thoughts behind.

SARAH: Mm-hmm.

AMY PEARL: I mean, it can't bother me. I can't let myself think about that poor, poor, poor, poor, poor living creatures that suffer.

SARAH: Yeah. But I do think it's good—I am grateful that, like, you are holding the position of making all of us think twice—including me. Like, I think I've been part of the, like, "Oh, this is a breakthrough! And look at the pig kidney in the human and the heart is beating! And everything is working! It's so cool!" And I do think that it's really helpful that you're reminding me there is a cost to this that we shouldn't ignore, and that—you know, that we should challenge our imaginations almost, to imagine a world where we don't have to exploit these pigs and find another way.

SOREN: There could be some young budding scientist that'll listen to this version of the story and come up with an artificial kidney and name it "Amy."

AMY PEARL: That would be great. That'd be great.

SARAH: [laughs] Yeah, I think that's the only way to make this right.

AMY PEARL: It's funny to think that there's like—I mean, how big was this pig at the end? Like, usually pigs—I guess when they slaughter them for meat maybe they're smaller. But, like, I met a pig in Vermont that was, like, 800 pounds. And I gave her a whole watermelon. And to her it was like ...

SOREN: Like a gumdrop? "Gulp. Thanks."

AMY PEARL: Yeah. I mean, it was—she was just giant. I took a hoe. I was, like, scratching her back with a hoe and it just looked like a little toothbrush on her, and she was like, "Ah, that feels so good!” I mean, I wonder if Amy got to be that big.

SOREN: I don't know.

SARAH: I wonder.

AMY PEARL: 800-pound Amy. Pretty formidable. Watch out!

SARAH: [laughs].

AMY PEARL: I'm just like, now wishing I could change places with her, and then I'll have done my time. And, like, I would have now be, like, left the mortal coil, and she would be sitting here in this interview with her pig intelligence, which is plenty for this, probably. [laughs]

SOREN: Do you think she could raise those kittens? And then she would end up on, like, one of those unlikely friendship calendars where it's like, "Look at the pig raising the kittens!"

AMY PEARL: [laughs] Exactly.

SARAH: Yeah.

AMY PEARL: I wonder if there's a resemblance? [sighs] What an incredible turn of events.

SARAH: What are you thinking?

AMY PEARL: I'm just thinking about, like, Amy the pig going about her business, you know, with no thought to any of this. Just imagining, like, "Oh, it's so warm here in the mud, I'm gonna stay here for a little while. Oh, I'm hungry. I'm gonna go check out the trough for a while." Just like that kind of ...

SOREN: Mm-hmm.

AMY PEARL: ... that kind of living. I don't know. When your brain hurts, you just have to, like, retreat to your body.

LULU: Hmm.

LATIF: Yeah.

LULU: Thank you Amy Pearl for coming on the show again and making us think more deeply than we were. Again.

LATIF: This update to the episode was reported and produced by Sarah Qari. And also, thank you to Amy the pig.

LULU: Thank you, Amy the pig. I'm Lulu Miller.

LATIF: I'm Latif Nasser.

LULU: Latif, I just wanted to say before they cut us off here that that whole story was a real oink uroboros of a tale.

LATIF: That is not a joke that people are gonna get, I think, I'm afraid.

LULU: It's like a uroboros is this snake that's eating its tail.

LATIF: It's partly because I've always pronounced it "Ouroboros."

LULU: Okay. Well, oink ouroboros of a tale. Pig tail.

 

[JAD: Science reporting on Radiolab is supported in part by Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science.]

[VINCENT: Hi, This is Vincent Rohouse from Norman, Oklahoma. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.]

[LISTENER: Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is edited by Soren Wheeler. Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are our co-hosts. Suzie Lechtenberg is our executive producer, and Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Our staff includes: Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, W. Harry Fortuna, David Gebel, Maria Paz Gutiérrez, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Alex Neason, Sarah Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. With help from Tanya Chawla, and Sarah Sandbach. Our fact-checkers are Diane Kelly, Emily Krieger and Adam Przybyl.]

 

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