Green Light for Pig Tissue Transplants

NEW ZEALAND - The health minister has permitted the use of pig cells to be used in transplants to help diabetes patients.
calendar icon 22 October 2008
clock icon 3 minute read

Health Minister David Cunliffe has permitted a pig cell transplant clinical trial to test a potential new treatment for people with type 1 diabetes, reports the NZ Herald.

The start of the trial at Middlemore Hospital in Auckland has been held up for nearly a year while Mr Cunliffe sought fresh advice after his appointment as minister last year.

The Government was subjected to last-minute lobbying by the Sustainability Council in October last year, which urged a new round of public consultation and raised concerns about potential new diseases from the treatment.

The trial in effect revives one stopped in Auckland in 1996 over concerns about the risk of transferring pig viruses, although no evidence has been found of this happening and the techniques for encapsulating the cells has advanced since 1996.

In the new trial, encapsulated cells taken from the cells of neonatal piglets of a specially reared pig herd will be transplanted into eight people with type 1 diabetes. The cells will be put in the abdomen.

Type 1 diabetes is an auto-immune disease whose cause is unknown. It usually starts in childhood and is not related to obesity. It affects around 15,000 New Zealanders.

People with the disease cannot produce insulin and have to inject themselves regularly with synthetic insulin, to control the level of glucose in their blood. It is hoped the pig cells will produce insulin for them.

The pig cells are produced by the biotechnology company Living Cell Technologies, which is also involved with a trial of the laparoscopic cell transplants in Moscow, which has shown promising results.

Mr Cunliffe said that in giving his conditional approval to the Middlemore trial he had taken into account the huge potential of so-called xenotransplantation (animal-to-human) for treating type 1 diabetes.

"The new treatment promises to achieve a better health status for people dependent on insulin."

"I would like to stress from the outset that this Auckland trial ... will be done under a very rigorous set of conditions that will meet international best practice standards."

After cabinet discussed the trial in March, he sought further consultation and advice from the National Health Committee. It recommended the trial proceed subject to conditions to which the Ministry of Health and Living Cell Technologies (LCT) had agreed.

The conditions included that all patient information and tissue samples of those in the trial be held in an archive at Middlemore Hospital and that the trial be overseen by an independent Data Safety Management Board.

If LCT ceased trading in New Zealand, they would have to transfer all patient records and tissue samples to the ministry.

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