Miracle cures in a pig's eye

Saturday, 11 October 1997

A lot has happened in the 30 years since Chris Barnard's team successfully transplanted Denise Ann Darvall's heart into Louis Washkansky

THIS week is the feast of St Triduana of Scotland, the patron saint of people with eye problems.

St Triduana, so the legends say, was one of a group of nuns who accompanied St Regulas to Scotland from Constantinople maybe as early as 337 AD. They brought with them the relics of St Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland.

Triduana's beauty, and in particular, her exquisite eyes, attracted the attentions of the Pictish king, Nectan.

Scandalised by his feelings for her, Triduana asked what it was about her that he loved. On being told it was her beautiful eyes, she gouged them out and had them presented to Nectan on a thorn.

Subsequently, Triduana settled in Lestalryk in Lothian and people began to associate her extreme act with saintliness. Her shrine became a place of pilgrimage for sufferers from eye diseases who flocked to bathe their eyes in St Triduana's Well, from the Middle Ages to the Reformation.

It is today called St Tredwell's Chapel, and the village is now called Restalrig, to the east of Edinburgh.

Had Triduana been alive today, Nectan would have been about R10 000 richer, as that's the going price for a pair of corneas imported from the UK. About 35 000 South Africans are on the waiting list for cornea transplants, and about 45% of corneas are imported.

What I found interesting about this is the fact that cornea transplants are now so commonplace.

Maybe pig corneas will be next? You may have heard that pig livers have been used to help people with liver failure to survive until a human donor can be found. The pigs have been laced with human genes to reduce the risk of rejection by the human body.

Centuries from now, will some maniacal journalist write about the legend of the Australian shrine of St Babe?

At the same time, some farmers have begun supplying their pigs with video games and snout-compatible joysticks. Happy pigs, they say, produce better bacon.

Coincidence? We think not . . .

There again, transplants may be a (ahem) dying business. The London Times this week reported that new technology involving growing new tissue from body cells should allow scientists to replicate any human organ in order to use them as "body spares":

The technique, marketed by Advanced Tissue Sciences, a company in San Diego, California run by US scientist Gail Naughton, had previously allowed scientists to grow human skin used in grafts but it can now be used to grow bones, cartilage and tissue.

The only organ that has defied the new technique is kidneys. "This is not science fiction. Now that we have worked out the technology, there is no limit to what we can do," she said.

Now I can see the (ahem again) growth of a whole new industry here as an entire generation of insecure men of the '90s queue up to invest in this new endowment policy.

Why spend a fortune on hair transplants when sagging libido may be more adequately adjusted elsewhere? "Corporate giant" will take on a whole new meaning.

And what of disintegrating brains? Scientists report in this month's journal of neuroscience that the destruction and loss of key brain cells that happen as a result of Alzheimer's disease may be reversible.

Infusions of a substance known as nerve growth factor directly into the brains of mice appears to reverse the brain-cell shrinkage and improve memory and learning ability.

Ronald Reagan may yet be back.