Pig-To-Human Transplant Plan
For Parkinson's Patients
BBC News Sci/Tech
An American company has applied to inject pig cells into the brains of human sufferers of Parkinson's disease in the UK.
The treatment is intended to halt or potentially reverse brain damage in sufferers. It is already undergoing trials in the United States where some patients have seen benefits.
But scientists, campaigners and organisations - most notably the Council of Europe - have requested a moratorium on all cross-species transplants until key questions have been answered over its safety.
Virus fear
There are fears that pig-to-human transplants could introduce new "silent" viruses, or retroviruses, into the human population. These reside in the pig's DNA and cannot be screened out using normal methods.
HIV is an example of a retrovirus and was derived from chimpanzees. There are also significant ethical questions over the transplant treatment.
A report in Monday's Guardian newspaper identified the company applying for UK transplant trials as the Genzyme Corporation. Genzyme has not confirmed the report.
Secrecy row
The UK Department of Health have refused to name the firm, despite a written Commons question from Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker. Many MPs now want to know why the matter is being treated with such secrecy.
The company that applied for permission is understood to have developed a procedure in which cells from pigs' foetuses can be transplanted to produce a vital chemical, dopamine, that Parkinson's sufferers' brains have stopped making.
The American trials have recorded some early successes and were approved by the US Food and Drug administration.
"Humanised" organs
The application to replicate the US cell transplant trials in the UK is also likely to throw the spotlight on other procedures, including genetically-modifying pigs to give them "humanized" organs that can then be "harvested" for transplant into human beings.
To date, researchers have not been able to successfully produce "transgenic" organs, but some scientists see them as an eventual solution to chronic shortages in transplantable organs.