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Bacon and Biochemistry Dominate Laatsch Farm
They act like any other pig - noisy, greedy, eternally hungry - but they carry a 10-inch surgical scar across their left chest and shoulder, and the blood pounding from their heart surges through a synthetic tube.
These pigs on the Frank Laatsch farm just off Highway 10 on North Bend's eastern limits, are mute but important participants in research that is already helping make major surgery in humans more successful.
The tubes are implanted by surgeons, part of a research team of surgeons, pathologists, biochemists and engineers, in a program conducted by the Reconstructive Cardiovascular Research Laboratory of Providence Hospital in Seattle.
The pigs - 125 thus far from the Laatsch farm - are taken to the laboratory when they're about 2 months old.
They are anesthetized and undergo surgery performed with the same care and type of facilities as for human patients.
In the operation, each pig has a piece of the aorta - the large blood vessel leading from the heart - removed. In its place goes a synthetic tubular graft.
Different kinds of grafts placed in the pig's body are telling the researchers which heals best and which is best accepted by the body.
A few days after surgery the pigs are returned to the Laatsch farm, where they lead a pig's life - food and more food - until ready for slaughter. Then at 6 months and about 235 pounds, they go to Seattle and the fate of most pigs - an eventual meat course in somebody's breakfast.
At slaughter, laboratory personnel retrieve the graft specimens for study.
"Mr. and Mrs. Laatsch have been an important part of a research program that's goal is better artificial arteries for the many people with vascular problems," one member of the research team said this week.
"We had supposed that the use of pigs would mean a sizable cost for the animals. Mr. Laatsch charges us nothing for the use of his animals. If a pig dies, we pay him its worth. Otherwise, there is no cost and we are very grateful."
"Laatsch's pigs are useful for far more than ham or bacon, although that is still their ultimate destination," the researchers note.
To Laatsch, his wife, Marion, and their son Bill, 15, the chance to participate in the research has been a pleasure that contains its own reward.
"If we can help do some good," says Laatsch, "what's a little time and a few hogs?"
The Laatsches have been raising pigs since 1960, and are proud of the primarily English Black line that dominates their stock.
So, on the Laatsch farm at least, be kind to that pig. He may be helping produce the knowledge that some day will let you turn in your worn arteries for artificial, but efficient ones.