Risks and benefits of pig cell transplants
Bob Elliott from Living Cell Technologies (LCT) discusses the risks and benefits associated with pig cell transplants.
The main risk of pig cell transplants is the transmission of diseases from pigs to humans. LCT minimises this risk by using a designated pathogen-free population of pigs, housing them in a sterile barrier facility and testing them for disease-causing pathogens.
The main benefit of pig cell transplants is improving quality of life of type 1 diabetics by giving them better control of their blood sugar and preventing potentially life-threatening complications.
Questions to consider
- Do you think the benefits of pig cell transplants outweigh the risks?
- What other factors might you want to consider if you were deciding whether pig to human transplants should continue?
- Should you also consider animal welfare, spiritual, cultural or religious views?
Bob Elliott (Living Cell Technologies):
The risk of pig cell transplants really boil down to the risk of transmission of pig diseases to humans. Now we can never be 100% certain of anything in biology, but we do risk minimisation by selecting a herd free of diseases, as far as we can test, because there’s always the risk of the unknown – they might have a disease that’s never been recorded before or that we’ve not detected – so we exhaustively test the herd. We test particular animals we’ve selected to be donors. We test the final product, the encapsulated cells, to make sure as far as we can that it’s free of any agent that could cause infection. We can’t be 100% certain – there is always a risk with any new procedure that something we haven’t thought of might cause problems. If we took that attitude to everything we do, we’d never progress in life. Anything new involves a risk.
And the benefit at the moment is, yes, we’ve actually been able to alleviate a life-threatening condition, that’s a considerable benefit for those people with that. Can we improve lifestyle of the ordinary type 1 diabetic? Yeah, that’s what we’re aiming for, and I won’t be satisfied until we’ve attained that final goal.
I could give you an example probably is the best way of explaining. The first patient we had in the trial was a guy who commuted to Auckland from a long distance. He’d have to stop his motorcar frequently to check his blood glucose because he had no idea whether he was running low or not, and he was fully aware that running low he could kill himself and perhaps kill other people too in a road accident. His wife was having to take him off to hospital in the middle of the night convulsing to receive treatment at the hospital. Six weeks after the transplant, a single dose, the smallest dose actually, his symptom disappeared and has not returned. He can now drive his motorcar without this fear of this happening. He hasn’t had a single severe turn at home, he’s not had to go to hospital with convulsing. His life’s been turned around really. He can now live a pretty normal lifestyle, still having to inject insulin but without the fear of this occurring. Now that’s nearly 2 years now that… since we did that transplant, and that’s been maintained and that’s a fabulous result really.
The benefit is huge because type 1 diabetes is a life-shortening disease, that’s a big, big benefit and we can quantitate that benefit. We can’t quantitate the risk because so far there hasn’t appeared to be any risk at all, but the potential is there. And I think, if you have a large quantifiable benefit and only a small and theoretical risk, then you’re justified in going ahead.
- 09 November 2011
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