Israel has long been recognized worldwide for its top-notch medical research and its numerous contributions to the fields of health, biotech, biomedical science, and bioengineering. It is less known for its pig breeding, let alone medical testing on swine.
But Lahav C.R.O., a medical research institute housed within Kibbutz Lahav in southern Israel, and formerly known as the Lahav Animal Research Institute, has been doing just that for over five decades.
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The kibbutz, just north of Beersheba, was established in 1952 to settle the Negev desert and work the land, with members farming crops and livestock as their livelihood. But as the kibbutz movement began shifting away from socialist communal settlements to more profitable enterprises, Lahav set up the animal institute in 1963, a year after Israel passed a new law that allowed hog farming for scientific and medical research. Pigs are forbidden for consumption according to Jewish dietary laws, and Israel, being the Jewish state, had up until 1962 only allowed farmers in northern Israel, where there is a sizeable non-Jewish community, to breed the animals.
Today, Lahav C.R.O (Contract Research Organization), works jointly with universities, medical device companies, and pharmaceutical companies and has become one of Israel’s leading research centers focused on pigs, of which it has several thousand, and sheep.
Lahav C.R.O. conducts comprehensive research into a host of diseases and treatments including for diabetes, heart disease, skin diseases, pulmonary disease, cancer detection, and even trauma injuries. Ofer Doron, a manager of the institute for almost two decades, says the trauma research is important given the geo-political situation in the region. “No doubt that the reality of trauma and terrorism that surrounds us is a catalyst for our research on how to treat injuries of such a nature,” he tells NoCamels.
The institute’s findings are then shared with hospitals and research centers around the world.
According to Doron, pigs are a preferred animal model for medical research because their cardiovascular system, skin, and gastrointestinal regions resemble that of humans, therefore making them ideal for pre-clinical trials of new medical products and devices.
Doron is tight-lipped when it comes to specifics of the institute’s specific medical projects, as he says Lahav C.R.O signs non-disclosure agreements with the various hospitals and facilities it works with. But the Jewish Chronicle reported last month that some of the current projects include screening for colorectal cancer and developing a mechanical heart valve.
Doron becomes a tad touchy when asked about the animal’s perceived uncleanliness in Judaism and the ban, according to Jewish law, on raising unkosher animals.
“Our focus is saving lives,” he says, “And saving lives is a mitzvah in Judaism. We work with religious researchers. We have traditional Jews on staff who don’t eat pork. We have contractors who are religious and know what we are doing,” he says.
While it’s unknown how the pigs themselves got to the kibbutz, a 2010 BBC article reports kibbutz co-founder Eri Doron, Ofer’s father, said three hogs were given to early kibbutzniks as gifts, while his son simply says: “Pigs were always here.”
Like all centers that focus on animal research, Lahav C.R.O. comes under fire by animal rights activists who abhor its work, but Doron says some of the confrontations have led to positive effects.
“We certainly believe in dialogue. I must admit that looking at the history, a lot of the involvement of different groups that oppose animal testing have brought up a lot of good changes to the welfare of animals and how these issues are being looked at. But wherever and whenever it’s on the extreme — I don’t think it has good results,” he says.
Doron is quick to note that all of the medical projects at the institute are approved by the National Ethics Committee of Israel. “We are not allowed to do anything without approval,” he adds.
While the Israeli government has come under renewed pressure to ban pig farming since the 1990s, the pork industry has grown steadily due to an increased appetite for pig product throughout the country.
Even Kibbutz Lahav uses their excess pigs (those that have been raised to provide organs for research only) for consumption. Pork in on the menu for Shabbat and holidays in the kibbutz.
Whether raised, served, or eaten, pigs are no doubt part of this kibbutz’s legacy.