Heparin, pigs and vampire bats: What are you really administering?

By Dr Tamara Power, Director of Health Simulation at the UTS Faculty of Health


Photo: Anna Zhu

The next time you are out on clinical placement, pick up a vial of Heparin Sodium Injection and have a good look at it.

Heparin is an anticoagulant, used (among other things) for prophylaxis (prevention) and treatment of thromboembolic disorders such as pulmonary embolism or venous thrombosis (DVT) (MIMS Australia 2016).

Heparin comes as a clear solution for injection in 5,000 and 25,000 unit ampoules.

But where does it come from?

If you investigate, just a little, you will find that Heparin is actually prepared from the lungs or intestinal mucosae of pigs. When you look at the bottle you will see it is labelled porcine mucosa (MIMS Australia 2016).

But the plot thickens (or the blood thins) when you also consider that a glycoprotein found in the saliva of vampire bats is currently being investigated as an anticoagulant to treat ischaemic strokes and myocardial infarction (Low 2013).

Named Draculin (yes really), it is also being tested for use as a blood thinner to prevent heart attacks.


In fact many common medications are sourced from animal products.

The gelatin used in capsules is usually sourced from cows or pigs, and many exogenous hormones and anti-neoplastic (cancer) agents are manufactured using Chinese Hamster Ovary cells.

Influvac, a flu virus vaccine is prepared from a virus grown in a cavity of embryonated eggs.

Horses provide the source of many anti venoms.

Even lanolin, that everyday cream that we use on our patient’s cracked and broken skin comes from fat extracted from sheep’s wool (Department of Health 2013).

But apart from the “ewww” factor, what does this mean for us as nurses?

Maybe not a lot – but it could be important to our patients.

Some people for cultural or religious reasons may wish to avoid even traces of animal products in their medications. It is important to respect these beliefs and provide information to allow them to reach an informed decision.

If animal products are an issue for your patient, have them discuss synthetic alternatives with their doctor. In some cases the medication has been so altered from the original source that it may no longer be an issue.

The particular adherence to a belief will also vary from individual to individual.

But an informed patient is an empowered patient (Department of Health 2013).

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