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Pig cell transplants

Living Cell Technologies (LCT) is a New Zealand company at the forefront of xenotransplantation research. In this focus story, explore why and how they’re using pig cells to treat disease.

Animal to human transplants

Transplanting living cells, tissues or organs from animals into people is known as xenotransplantation. Research in xenotransplantation is being driven by a lack of available human donor tissue.

Get theme: Xenotransplantation and organ donation

Using pig cells to treat disease

LCT is an Auckland-based company that is developing pig cell transplants to treat diseases such as diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, stroke and hearing loss.

Reducing the risk of disease

In the past, xenotransplantation research has been stopped because of the risk that it may spread disease from one species to another. To minimise this risk, LCT sources its cells from a unique breed of pigs, which originally come from the subantarctic Auckland Islands. LCT has designed and built special facilities to house the pigs and ensure they remain free of disease-causing pathogens and are kept happy and healthy and exhibit normal behaviours.

Get information sheet: Designated pathogen-free pigs – origins and welfare

Monitoring for disease

LCT has a world-leading molecular diagnostics lab that tests for known disease-causing pathogens, such as viruses and bacteria. The lab’s main purpose is to make sure that pig cell donors, pig cell transplant products and recipients are free of infectious disease.

Get information sheet: Pig viruses and virus testing

Preventing transplant rejection

All live cell, tissue or organ transplants (from animal or human sources) have the potential to be rejected. Rejection occurs when the immune system attacks and destroys foreign tissue. In animal to human transplants, rejection happens rapidly unless steps are taken to prevent it. LCT encapsulates its pig cells in a special seaweed-based coating to prevent them being rejected. The coating is a physical barrier to antibodies and prevents rejection of the cell transplant. This method has an added benefit – pig cell transplant recipients don’t need to take toxic drugs to suppress their immune system function.

Get information sheet: Preventing pig cell transplant rejection

Treating type 1 diabetes

Pig cell transplants are currently being trialled as a treatment for type 1 diabetes. Type 1 diabetes is caused by a loss of insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. It affects 15,000 people in New Zealand who need daily insulin injections to control their blood sugar levels. These people also have a high risk of developing severe health complications, so treatments that can give better control of blood sugar levels are needed. Transplanting insulin-producing pig cells into diabetics has been shown to improve blood sugar control and reduce the amount of insulin needed.

Get information sheet: Diabetes and pig cell transplants
Get information sheet: Trialling pig cell transplants

Treating Parkinson’s disease

In an exciting new development, LCT is now testing whether pig cell transplants can be used to treat neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease. In Parkinson’s disease, specific nerve cells that control motor function die. LCT is transplanting pig cells from a region of the brain that can stimulate nerve repair and regrowth. In animal experiments, these transplants have caused new nerve cell growth and eased symptoms of the disease.

Ethics of pig cell transplants

Using animal cells to treat human disease raises many ethical issues. Whether people think that the benefits of this technology outweigh the risks is largely influenced by their needs and their cultural, religious or spiritual views of the world.

Get information sheet: Ethics of pig cell transplants

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