Xenotranplantation is the term used to describe the transplantation of organs, tissue or cells from one species to another. It has been pursued by researchers due to the lack of available human donors and more recently, in an attempt to treat diabetes by using cells derived from pig foetuses.
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 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.
HRA has been advised by experts (including Prof. Peter Collignon, Director Infectious Diseases Unit and Microbiology Department, The Canberra Hospital) that the concerns remain unchanged.
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.
In a recent letter, the NHMRC themselves state that xenotransplantation carries a “low but unquantifiable risk of cross species viral transmission”!
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.
What can you do?
Please write to the following minister and urge not to allow this risky and unethical research to continue:
The Hon. Greg Hunt MP
Minister for Health
House of Representatives
PO Box 6022
Canberra ACT 2600