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Pig cell transplants could fuel health tourism

19 Apr, 2011

Source: Living Cell Technologies

A New Zealand treatment centre offering transplants of pig tissue to diabetics will lead to the growth of ‘xenotransplant tourism’, says medical researcher Professor Robert Elliott.

Professor Elliott is the chairman of Auckland-based Living Cell Technologies (LCT).

“Xenotourism is going to occur for sure,” he says. “It’s easiest to do the treatment here because we don’t have to ship the pig cells overseas.

“This is a 15-minute procedure – it can be done on a day-stay basis – and the follow-up is gentle, as the cells take quite a while to mature over 8–12 weeks.”

LCT breeds and euthenases piglets so that the insulin-producing islet cells in the pancreas can be injected into diabetic patients to help their bodies stabilise the blood sugar levels.

Elliott says the company was initially targeting type 1 diabetics with complications, such as ‘unaware hypoglycaemia’ low blood sugar. These patients have lost the ability to recognise dangerously low blood sugar levels – possibly because of nerve damage that masks physical symptoms – and the problem can be worse if it arises while they are asleep. Such patients account for about 8% of deaths in type 1 diabetes.

Elliott says that the use of pig tissue was not a problem for many Jewish patients – the company had an opinion from London’s chief rabbi that injections of pig cells did not contravene religious laws.

He says that there were varying degrees of acceptance of the concept in Islamic communities, which tended to depend on the religious sect involved. Some Muslims took a “pretty pragmatic” view of life-saving therapies.

LCT has finished the main phase II clinical trials at Middlemore Hospital but it is testing high and low doses on two more patients, partly to see if the treatment can succeed with the use of fewer piglets for each patient.

LCT announced that a big Japanese company, Otsuka Pharmaceutical Factory, is going to invest $4m into LCT’s xenotransplantation therapy for type 1 diabetics. Otsuka will also lead the Japanese part of phase III clinical trials expected to start in New Zealand later this year.

Otsuka managing director Hiromi Yoshikawa says that LCT’s xenotransplants, in which the cells are encased in a seaweed gel to avoid triggering an immune response in the patient to the pig cells, provided a significant opportunity to improve treatment options available in Japan and elsewhere in the world.

Get news story: Pig cell transplant treatment for diabetes

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