By: Russell Phillips
Xenotransplantation (“zee-no-transplantation”) may sound like something from a space invasion novel, but it’s actually the practice of transplanting organs, cells, or tissues from one animal species into another. With scientific advances taking place so rapidly and with so many patients desperate for organ transplants, it seems plausible (and pretty likely) that one day xenotransplantation will be commonplace.
At this time, the transfer of disease from the donor species to human recipients, called xenozoonosis (“zee-no-zoo-oh-no-sis”), is still a cause for concern. But by minimizing this risk, Living Cells Technologies is moving forward with a study evaluating xenotransplantation as a possible treatment for type 1 diabetes.
During the company’s study, insulin-producing cells from newborn pigs will be implanted into the stomachs of human subjects in an effort to delay the effects of type 1 diabetes. Professor Bob Elliott, the medical director of Living Cell Technologies, stated in a press release that in two previous trials of the process, insulin production was “increased in some subjects. Others rejected the pig cells, or the implanted cells stopped producing insulin after a year.”
Although pig insulin used to be a common treatment for human diabetes, implanting pig cells into humans is another story entirely. Xenozoonosis from the pigs to human recipients has the potential to cause new illnesses that have not been previously seen in humans. How would we respond? Would it prove to be deadly? Dr. Elliott, however, believes that the threat of a pig virus infecting the humans in his study is no more than “theoretical.” The piglets used for the cell transplants are believed to be free of transferable viruses because their ancestors lived for 150 years on an isolated island south of New Zealand. They are currently being housed in a sterile environment.
Professor Martin Wilkinson, who is not associated with the study, stated in an Associated Press article that infection from the pig islet cells is not a great risk and that the human subjects could probably deal with it even if it did happen.
Pig cells transplanted into diabetic sufferers