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Scientists hail boost for pig organ transplants.

A major hurdle has been cleared from the path of progress towards transplanting animal organs into humans, scientists have said.

The largest study to assess the safety of pig organs for transplants has produced no evidence that they are likely to spread potentially dangerous viruses to humans.

From a scientific point of view at least, all that now stands in the way of conducting the first patient trial of pig transplant organs is knowing how to avoid their rejection by the immune system.

Dr Paul Heerling is head of research at the pharmaceutical company Novartis, which is developing xenotransplants - the name given to animal organs implanted into humans.

He said: "Our next step is to refine the combination of medicines that patients will need to protect their xenotransplant from rejection.

"If these studies are as positive as the results of our safety research, we can then consider the next step which is small, carefully monitored clinical trials."

Fears about the use of pig organs for transplants have arisen over the possibility that they might allow animal viruses to cross into humans.

The biggest worry is the Porcine Endogenous Retrovirus (PERV), which in the laboratory appears to be capable of infecting human cells.

It has, over millions of years, become permanently integrated into the genetic material of pigs and is inherited by their offspring, making it almost impossible to remove.

Although it does no harm to pigs, critics of the transplant programme have warned that in humans it could have unforeseen and potentially devastating effects.

The study, reported in the journal Science, set out to find if there was any evidence of PERV infection in 160 patients previously treated with living pig tissue.

It was led by Dr Kaz Paradis, director of clinical research at Imutran, the Cambridge-based subsidiary of Novartis which has bred genetically modified pigs for human transplants.

Patients had been treated for up to 12 years previously with pig skin grafts for severe burns, pig pancreas cells for diabetes, or had their blood flushed outside the body through pig spleens, kidneys or livers.

The results showed no evidence of PERV infection in any of the patients.

Dr Paradis said any move to clinical trials would only take place following "open discussion with scientific and clinical experts, and with full approval from the appropriate regulatory authorities".

At the end of last year, 5,349 patients were on the UK organ transplant waiting list, while 1,349 kidneys were transplanted from dead donors and 240 from live donors during the year.
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Title Annotation:National
Author:Radowitz, John von
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Aug 20, 1999
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