News Release 8th February 2001
Government experts sound death knell
for pig organ transplants
The British Government's expert advisory committee on cross-species transplants has expressed serious doubts about the prospects of successful pig-to-human organ transplants. The committee, called the United Kingdom Xenotransplantation Regulatory Authority (UKXIRA), held its third annual public meeting yesterday at Westminster. The Authority's Third Annual Report was also launched at the meeting.
In September 2000, the Authority had been sent an enormous cache of documents describing Imutran/Novartis's programme of pig-to-primate organ transplants. Imutran, a subsidiary of Novartis Pharma and based in Cambridge, had been seen as a world leader in the development of pig organs for transplant purposes. The documents had been leaked to anti-vivisection group Uncaged Campaigns, and were reported on in the Daily Express on 21st and 22nd September. They showed horrific animal suffering in the research, revealed the misleading nature of Imutran/Novartis publicity, and laid bare the research's startling lack of progress. The information clearly has influenced the Authority's thinking, though because of an injunction granted to Imutran/Novartis preventing publication of the documents on grounds of breach of confidentiality and copyright, the Authority would not discuss the documents and the accompanying Diaries of Despair report.
Members of the Authority stunned the audience as they acknowledged the lack of progress in overcoming the powerful rejection of pig organs by the human body and the growing fears over the virus dangers of pig organs. Authority member John Dark, a Newcastle heart transplant surgeon, told the audience that research involving the implantation of transgenic pig organs into primates, such as that conducted by Imutran/Novartis, had yielded "disappointing" results and had lead up a "blind alley". He concluded with deliberate irony: "Xenotransplantation is the future of transplants -and it always will be!"
Another UKXIRA member, Professor Herb Sewell, an immunologist based in Nottingham, said he could not see progress "within a ten year time scale, if at all." He also warned that the public predictions made by Imutran in 1995 of human trials of pig organs during 1996, emphasised the need for professionals to engage with the public in an accurate and balanced way.
In his presentation, virologist Professor Robin Weiss (Windeyer Institute of Medical Sciences) was scathing about Imutran/Novartis's approach to investigating the danger of viruses crossing from pigs to humans as a result of the cross-species transplants. He said he found it "extraordinary" that, despite his advice, the company had only searched for one class of pig viruses in a study of patients who had been exposed to living pig tissue. He was also critical in general about the failure of the company to conduct sufficient research into the problem in the past six years. The danger to public health posed by pig viruses has been one of the most persistent obstacles to the technology of cross-species transplants.
The Authority was also critical of the decision by Imutran/Novartis to switch its pig-to-primate transplant research from the UK to the US and Canada, which lack animal welfare regulations. The Chairman of the Authority, Lord Habgood (former Archbishop of York), told the audience that the UKXIRA that "scientific research involving the use of animals is best conducted in countries where appropriate regulatory controls are in place to ensure that due regard is given to animal welfare."
Dr Maggy Jennings, an Authority member and a senior RSPCA official, focussed on the "serious and substantial" costs to pigs, primates and other animals in terms of suffering and death. She stated that the animal suffering had not been sufficiently considered when determining whether xenotransplantation research should be permitted by the Government. With the prospect of successful pig organ transplants receding, she recommended that the ethical question of whether the "benefits" to humans outweighed the substantial suffering endured by animals needs to be re-examined.
Dan Lyons, Director of Uncaged Campaigns, who was present at the meeting. said: "The death knell for pig organ transplants has been sounded. The Authority has finally arrived at the position we have been arguing for for five years: pig organ transplants are cruel, dangerous, and unlikely to even work. Furthermore, the positive developments in alternative approaches to dealing with organ failure that were identified by the Authority show that pig organ transplants are unnecessary. We urge Novartis to do the decent thing and stop this cruel and hazardous research."
For further information and interviews, please contact Dan Lyons on 07733 326068, or see our website at www.xenodiaries.org and www.uncaged.co.uk .
The UKXIRA can also be contacted at 020 7972 4822