Science in Society Archive

Biotech century ending?

This miniseries charts the further collapse of the biotech empire, particular in the supposedly ‘highly lucrative’ biomedical sector since the latter part of 2000. It is now desperately grasping for support from the taxpayer by hyping genetics and bio-defence. Don’t be fooled.

  1. Genetics & Bio-Defence Research Rescue Biotech Slump
  2. Gene Therapy Risks Exposed
  3. Death Sentence on Cloning
  4. Pig Organ Transplants Dangerous & Costly
  5. Animal Pharm Folds

Pig Organ Transplants Dangerous & Costly

A damning report on xeno-transplantation buried by government officials, according to The Observer.

The Department of Health commissioned a report two years ago to explore the legal and ethical implications of xenotransplantation, and to help formulate a strategy for proceeding with the contentious technology.

The independent advisers from the University of Glasgow warn that xenotransplantation might have to be abandoned in favour of other alternatives. The report argues that not only has the Government ignored ethical and public concerns over the technology, but that using it on patients could prove so dangerous that the Government could face multi-million pound compensation claims.

Professor Sheila McLean and Dr Laura Williamson from the University of Glasgow spent 16 months putting together the 700-page document.

Its conclusions, leaked to The Observer at the end of June 2003, warn that the NHS and companies involved would be liable for a huge lawsuit if new, potentially lethal viruses emerge from the practice of putting pig cells and organs into the human body. And if the disease - which some experts have warned could create a new HIV-type virus - spreads across the world, the Government could be sued for breaching international law.

Patients would also have to choose between death and agreeing to lifelong monitoring and not to have unprotected sex or children, in case any disease could be passed on to another generation.

To help facilitate the acceptance of xeno-transplantation, the Government commissioned three reports into technology. Two of them - on the risk of disease transmission and the practicalities of transplanting animal organs - have already been published.

The authors of the final, most controversial document were stunned when they got a letter from a senior government official dated 19 June - explaining it had decided not to publish their work. It claims the findings in the report did not meet the needs of the UK Xenotransplantation Interim Regulatory Authority (UKXIRA), which offers expert guidance to the Government on the issue, and “lacked balance in some areas”.

The decision to suppress the report caused outrage among animal welfare groups, which have expressed deep unease about the ethics of creating ‘organ farms’.

Co-author Williamson fears that failure to publish the report suggests that UKXIRA will continue to give insufficient attention to the ethical questions raised.

But it is the legal implications arising from the creation of new disease that appears likely to prove most damaging to the future of xeno-transplantation.

Many experts have voiced concerns that putting pig cells and organs into the human body could create new viruses. The pig genome contains many porcine endogenous retroviruses that while dormant in the pig, could prove infectious for human beings.

In fact, although xenotransplantation is banned in Britain and America, the Government’s regulatory body is still accepting trial applications from companies.

Hope was bolstered by the announcement by PPL Therapeutics - the company behind Dolly the cloned sheep - that trials of animal-to human transplants could begin within two years following the birth of cloned piglets genetically engineered so their organs will not be immediately rejected by patients. But PPL has sold the xenotransplantation business, and looks likely to close down after a series of setbacks (see Animal pharm folds, this series).

A Department of Health spokesperson explained that UKXIRA was considering whether a further review may be necessary, which will also take into account recent developments.

I-SIS has issued a comprehensive report back in 2000, Xenotransplantation – how bad science and big business put the world at risk from viral pandemics and all its conclusions and warnings have been confirmed.

Article first published 28/07/03


  1. “Doubts on pig organ transplants ignored” Mark Townsend, The Observer, Sunday 29 June, 2003

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