Health Team

Pig tissue helps with severe intestinal problems

Posted July 21, 2008 7:55 p.m. EDT
Updated July 25, 2008 8:10 a.m. EDT

— Tissue from pig intestines is key to a new procedure performed by University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill doctors as an alternative to major surgery of people with fistulas.

Fistulas are holes in human tissues that commonly develop in people with intestinal disorders, such as Crohn's disease.

Hair salon owner Rebecca Brown, of Goldsboro, says that despite having Crohn's disease, she wants to keep up her active lifestyle.

"I take my grandkids swimming," Brown said. "I teach in Sunday school. I sing in the church."

However, Crohn's disease causes chronic inflammation of the bowels, and that can slow Brown down.

The disease has cause her to develop fistulas. They have been treated with tubes and drainage bags, but over the years, every surgery led to another fistula, Brown said.

"I wanted my life back," she declared.

She turned to treatment from UNC radiologist Dr. Joseph Stavas. He used X-rays to reveal the track that intestinal acid had burned through layer after layer of tissue and out Brown's belly.

Instead of long surgery, though, Stavas offered to use tissue from pig intestines to fill in Brown's fistula channel.

"The body's own tissues then come to the rescue and use this as a lattice work or form of fertilizer in order to then begin to grow," Stavas said. He explained that the process that happens in the body is much the same as when the body's own stem cells do the same thing.

Pig intestine tissue has previously been used in skin grafting and replacing heart valves, but UNC researchers developed a method using X-rays to apply the tissue to a fistula repair. While surgery can last up to 12 hours and demands a long recovery period, the new method takes only an hour or two, and the patient can go home immediately.

Brown said the method has let her keep up with her grandchildren and the life she loves.

"This gives me a quick and easy way to recover," she said.