Xenotransplantation - Trading in Spare Parts. A group of pigs in a pen

Xenotransplantation – Trading in Spare Parts

An anxious looking pig with a number of his head within a lab facility. Image Credit: We Animals Media

In 2002 the Australian Government undertook a public consultation to determine whether or not to allow clinical trials of xenotransplantation. After a lengthy consultation process, in 2004, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) recommended that no clinical trials involving animal to human transplantation should be conducted in Australia for five years as the risk of animal to human viral transmission was not well understood.

The NHMRC reviewed their decision in December 2009 and the ban was overturned. This means that clinical trials of xenotransplantation can proceed once ethical guidelines have been established.

Painful experiments on animals

Animals suffer terribly during xeno research. They are often genetically-modified, and recipient animals must have their immune system suppressed to lessen the chance of rejection.

The ‘Diaries of Despair’, an expose by British group Uncaged, is a harrowing report of the suffering. Uncaged’s Director, Dan Lyons, stated in an interview “One of the most unfortunate animals had a piglet heart transplanted into his neck. It was a particularly disturbing example, I think, because for several days he was holding the heart. It was swollen. It was seeping blood; it was seeping pus as a result of the infections that often occur in the wound site. He suffered from body tremors, vomiting, diarrhea. And the animal just sat there. I think living hell is really the only sort of real way you can get close to describing what it must be like to have been that animal in that situation.”

Note: Uncaged Campaigns has achieved an astonishing legal success by winning the right to publish the Diaries of Despair report and over a thousand pages of confidential documents. Uncaged Campaigns argued successfully that it was in the public interest to reveal the shocking truth behind one of Britain’s most extreme programs of animal experiments in recent history. More information is available by visiting www.xenodiaries.org

Risk of a Zoonotic pandemic

AIDS, BSE (Mad Cow Disease), Ebola viruses and some of the major flu epidemics such as Avian flu, originated from cross-species contamination. Porcine Endogenous Retrovirus (PERV) has already been discovered in the animals intended to be used as a source for organ donors. Current tests are unable to diagnose potential xenozoonotic viruses with their unknown pathogenic behaviour, and, even if detected, the viruses are largely untreatable.

Risk to the wider community

Not only would clinical trials be exposing the organ (or tissue) recipient to major health risks, but these risks would also be extended to the recipient’s carers and families and the wider community. Considering that viruses may initially show no obvious signs of disease and may spread beyond the recipient into the general population before they become evident, at what stage will researchers deem their patients as no longer carrying any risk? And during that period before the disease is identified or acknowledged, how many people are likely to have been exposed to that disease? Certainly an individual has the right to expose themselves to any risks involved in scientific research but to further expose that risk to the wider community, who have NOT given consent, is highly unethical. Indeed the number of individuals that could suffer and die from a new epidemic could greatly exceed those potential lives which xenotransplantation was supposed to have saved in the first place.

Australia simply cannot allow research into xenotransplantation to proceed. It would cause extreme cruelty to countless animals, expose entire communities to the risk of a potential zoonotic epidemic and appears to hold little promise of resolving the problem of a shortage of human organs and tissues.

In this 2022 publication – Existing Ethical Tensions in Xenotransplantation the ethics for humans and animals is discussed.

News Articles

The death of the first person to receive a pig heart transplant is not in vain


First heart transplant into a human from a genetically modified pig is not only ethically wrong – it is already obsolete

Xenotransplants: we need to focus on human-relevant science, not try again


Animal to animal xenotransplantation in Australia

Some examples of animal to animal xenotransplantation conducted in Australia with NHMRC funding include:

AFSA’s recent case study of Westmead Institute for Medical Research’s xenotransplantation where 70 piglets were used for 6 transplants into diabetic baboons.  NSW

Transplantation of pig islets to treat type 1 diabetes.  University of Melbourne. NHMRC funding grant 1156889 (2019 – 2023)   $2,347,015.00

New strategies to protect pig to human renal xenografts.   University of Melbourne. NHMRC funding grant 1046152  (2013-2017)  $1,086,237.00

Manipulating the balance of effector and regulatory T cells to promote islet xenograft. NHMRC funding grant 1061868 -2014-2018)  $1,542,601.00

Bridging the gap in kidney transplantation using pigs as donors (Using humanized pigs as donors).   University of Sydney. NHMRC funding grant 1120443 (2017-20) $1,452,340

The below 2017 publication provides as example of baboon (cells) transplantation to mice at the University of Sydney, funded by the NHMRC:

Ex vivo-expanded baboon CD39 + regulatory T cells prevent rejection of porcine islet xenografts in NOD-SCID IL-2rγ -/- mice reconstituted with baboon peripheral blood mononuclear cells

Animal body parts are also used for human patients, such as sheep tendons, and kangaroo tendons have been proposed for eventual use in knee, ankle and shoulder ligament-replacement surgery

What can you do?

Please write to the following minister and urge not to allow this risky and unethical research to continue:

The Hon. Mark Butler MP

Minister for Health
House of Representatives
PO Box 6022
Parliament House
Canberra ACT 2600
Email: minister.butler@health.gov.au


It is a concern held by many, including researchers, that there is simply not enough donated pancreata in the human population to treat people with Type 1 Diabetes. Increased awareness about human donation needs to be explored and funded in lieu of dangerous and unethical animal experimentation.
Information about organ and tissue donation in Australia can be found here at Health Direct.gov.au 


In the next step toward producing the answer to kidney transplantation shortages, Anthony Atala, MD, FACS, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine and the kidney research team, have been awarded the prestigious KidneyX Track 2 $1 Million Prize for work based on a 3D kidney construct platform holding the potential to accelerate the regeneration of artificial kidneys.


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