Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Xenotransplantation: Full Speed Ahead, Slow Down

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Xenotransplantation: Full Speed Ahead, Slow Down

Article excerpt

A team of researchers at the University of Michigan has successfully tested an artificial kidney lined with kidney filtration cells from pigs ("Replacement of Renal Function in Uremic Animals with a Tissue-Engineered Kidney," Nature Biotechnology, May 1999). The device is designed to help people suffering from short-term kidney failure. When tested on dogs whose kidneys had been removed, it appears to have 10 to 15 percent of the functional capacity of a human kidney. Besides filtering out toxins, the pig cells are believed to "pull valuable molecules from the urine and return them--along with their own secretions--to the blood." Before testing in humans can begin, the researchers will have to show that the pig cells do not also introduce new viruses into a person's body. The authors of the study have indicated that they believe the device will be ready for human testing in about six months.

There is considerable disagreement about the likelihood and magnitude of the risks of xenotransplantation. In the worst-case scenario, an animal virus is transmitted to the human recipient and then spreads to the wider population. HIV provides the model: the human immunodeficiency virus is widely believed to have originated from a retrovirus in nonhuman primates. Yet scientists have pointed out that we cannot identify all the pathogens that do or will exist. More research is needed to estimate the size and probability of the risks and to develop risk management strategies. Whether researchers can show that viruses are not transmitted from species to species with the mixing of tissues and genes remains unknown. Whether they could do so in the next six months is unlikely.

The rapid rise of human therapies that use animal tissues is fueled by scientific enthusiasm and industrial investment. …

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