Animal Transplants Could Lead
To New AIDS Killing 'Billions'
By Sara Marani
LONDON (Reuters) - Doctors and lawyers warned Thursday that transplanting animal organs into humans could lead to a deadly AIDS-like epidemic and wipe out billions of lives.
``The risk with these transplants is that you could unleash into the human population an AIDS-like virus that you can catch as easily as the common cold,'' said Dr Ray Greek of campaign group Doctors and Lawyers for Responsible Medicine (DLRM). The group, which has members worldwide, was launching a campaign in London to ban xenotransplants -- the use of animal organs in human transplants.
The procedure, which has never yet been used, could save thousands of lives but put billions at risk by transferring animal viruses to humans, Greek said. ``You have to weigh up the risks and benefits of saving several thousand people a year against the possible annihilation of the human race,'' said Greek.
Requests for human transplant organs are growing at 15 percent a year and there are never enough human organs to go around. Genetically engineered pigs, with organs approximately the same size as their human equivalents, were thought to be the perfect solution, since pigs breed quickly and have large litters.
But scientists from the National Institute for Medical Research in London burst the bubble last year when they found two types of pig virus -- called porcine endogenous proviruses -- capable of infecting human cells. The discovery heightened fears that new diseases could cross over from pigs to humans, as the HIV virus that causes AIDS is believed to have done.
DLRM president Dr Andre Menache said potential transplant patients were ill informed about the possible dangers of xenotransplants.
``People are still unaware, they don't realize the seriousness of the risks,'' he said. ``They still believe that receiving an animal organ is better than the risk of passing a virus from the animal organ to the wider population.''
Menache said he believed it would be very difficult to stop the giant chemical companies who are plowing millions of dollars into developing xenotransplants from continuing their work because such huge potential profits are involved. ``It's big business. Billions of dollars a year are spent on research which will never yield results. We will never find all the possible viruses, so the problem will never go away,'' Greek said.
Leaders in transplant technology, Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis and its subsidiary, Imutran Ltd, have pledged to move into clinical trials only when scientific, safety and regulatory issues have been addressed. But some scientists fear the development of ``xeno-havens'' in countries with weak or no regulations on xenotransplantation, where cheaper organs from baboons or chimpanzees that could be laden with dangerous viruses could be used.

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