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Thursday, June 10, 1999 Published at 06:20 GMT 07:20 UK


Virus warning over animal organ transplants

Genetically modified pigs have been used for transplants

An international group of doctors and lawyers are calling for a ban on the use of genetically modified animal organs in human transplants amid fears over deadly new viruses.

Health Correspondent Richard Hanniford on BBC Radio 4's Today: Parallels with GM food
At a London conference on Thursday, Doctors and Lawyers for Responsible Medicine (DLRM) will argue that more research into the possibility of transmitting new viruses into the human population should be carried out before any such transplants could take place.

There are concerns that previously unknown viruses, as deadly as Aids, could pass from genetically-modified animal organs into their human hosts.

The Council of Europe voted in January for a moratorium on clinical tests of animal organ transplants into human beings until more is known about the potential hazards.

Dr Paul Layman and Dr Mark Matfield discuss xenotransplantation
The DLRM will tell the Thursday's London conference that there should be a global ban on such techniques.

The alliance describes the concept of animal-to-human transplants, known as xenotransplantation, as "a transplant surgeon's dream, but a virologist's nightmare".

DLRM President Dr Andre Menache, who works for the Israeli Ministry of Health, warned that pigs carry many viruses that are potentially lethal.

Malaysia deaths

Dr Menache highlighted the recent deaths of 100 people in Malaysia after being bitten by mosquitoes carrying a virus thought to come from pigs.

He said: "The transplantation of organs from pigs into humans is extremely dangerous because nobody knows what these viruses will do when they enter the human body.

"Xenotransplantation is a public health risk. We are a long, long way from solving the problem of viral transmission, and it would not be fair to expose the entire population to risk even if Joe Soap is prepared to take the risk himself and undergo such a transplant."

DLRM says laboratory-bred pig organs differ from human organs in their longevity, their metabolism and their resistance to disease.

They also carry a whole range of known and unknown viral and even sub-viral particles, some of which cannot be picked up, however careful the screening procedures.

Over the past 20 years there have been about 40 animal-to-human organ transplants, mostly in the US and India.

DLRM says all the patients died shortly after surgery.

The alliance is holding a press conference on Thursday to publicise its campaign.

Donor shortage

[ image: Surgeons are concerned about a shortage of donor organs]
Surgeons are concerned about a shortage of donor organs
Currently, there is a severe shortage of donor organs in the UK, but DLRM will argue that xenotransplantation is not the answer.

It will call for a new system to be introduced in the UK under which the organs of all patients would be considered for transplantation unless they had recorded an official objection.

Dr Menache said such an opt out scheme could only be introduced if the public was given a guarantee that organs would only be taken from patients who were officially brain stem dead.

He said the medical profession should also make more use of DNA matching techniques to reduce the chances that organs would be rejected, and should more regularly split donor organs so they could benefit more than one recipient.

Dr Menache said there was also a need for public health education campaigns to improve the health of the nation, and reduce the need for organ transplantation.

Advances in diagnosis and treatment should also reduce the need for such surgery in the future, he said.

Dr Mark Matfield, director of the European Bio-Medical Research Association, defended research into xenotransplantation.

He said: "The simple fact is that 150,000 people are waiting for an organ transplant and 30 plus die every day simply because there are not enough organs.

"There is a desperate need to find some way of treating these people otherwise they will just die."

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