Xenotranplantation is the term used to describe the transplantation of organs, tissue or cells from one species to another. It has been pursued by researchers due to the lack of available human donors and in an attempt to treat diabetes by using cells derived from pig foetuses. Baboons are generally used as the recipient animal as a model for humans.        

Both donor and recipient animals suffer terribly during xeno research. They are often genetically-modified, and recipient animals must have their immune system suppressed to lessen the chance of rejection. In the case of porcine islet cells, around 30 piglets are killed in order to harvest sufficient cells for one transplant operation.

The Diaries of Despair, an expose by British group Uncaged, is a harrowing report of the suffering. Uncaged’s Director, Dan Lyons, stated in an interview “One of the most unfortunate animals had a piglet heart transplanted into his neck. It was a particularly disturbing example, I think, because for several days he was holding the heart. It was swollen. It was seeping blood; it was seeping pus as a result of the infections that often occur in the wound site. He suffered from body tremors, vomiting, diarrhea. And the animal just sat there. I think living hell is really the only sort of real way you can get close to describing what it must be like to have been that animal in that situation.

The situation in Australia

After a lengthy consultation process, in 2004, the National Health and Medical Research Council recommended that no clinical trials involving animal to human transplantation should be conducted in Australia for five years as the risk of animal to human viral transmission was not well understood.

The NHMRC reviewed their decision in December 2009 and the ban was overturned. This means that clinical trials of xenotransplantation can proceed once ethical guidelines have been established.

According to recent correspondence, “NHMRC is not aware of any animal-to-human xenotransplantation trials currently being undertaken in Australia, and is not currently considering any funding proposals to undertake animal-to-human xenotransplantation trials in Australia.

Unfortunately however, animal to animal (usually pig to baboon) xenotransplantation continues.

Dangerous research

AIDS, BSE (Mad Cow Disease), Ebola viruses and some of the major flu epidemics such as Avian flu, originated from cross-species contamination. Porcine Endogenous Retrovirus (PERV) has already been discovered in the animals intended to be used as a source for organ donors. Current tests are unable to diagnose potential xenozoonotic viruses with their unknown pathogenic behaviour, and, even if detected, the viruses are largely untreatable.

The NHMRC themselves state that xenotransplantation carries a “low but unquantifiable risk of cross species viral transmission”!

Not only would clinical trials be exposing the organ (or tissue) recipient to major health risks, but these risks would also be extended to the recipient’s carers and families and the wider community. Considering that viruses may initially show no obvious signs of disease and may spread beyond the recipient into the general population before they become evident, at what stage will researchers deem their patients as no longer carrying any risk? And during that period before the disease is identified or acknowledged, how many people are likely to have been exposed to that disease? Certainly an individual has the right to expose themselves to any risks involved in scientific research but to further expose that risk to the wider community, who have NOT given consent, is highly unethical. Indeed the number of individuals that could suffer and die from a new epidemic could greatly exceed those potential lives which xenotransplantation was supposed to have saved in the first place.

Australia simply cannot allow research into xenotransplantation to proceed. It causes extreme cruelty to countless animals, exposes entire communities to the risk of a potential zoonotic epidemic and appears to hold little promise of resolving the problem of a shortage of human organs and tissues.