A Perfect Storm of Dots

On March 6, 2006, the Associated Press’s Alexander G. Higgins reported from Geneva:

The lethal strain of bird flu poses a greater challenge to the world than any infectious disease, including AIDS … the World Health Organization said Monday. Scientists also are increasingly worried that the H5N1 strain could mutate into a form easily passed between humans, triggering a global pandemic. It already is unprecedented as an animal illness in its rapid expansion … [WHO’s Dr Margaret] Chan told more than 30 experts in Geneva that the agency’s top priority was to keep the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu from mutating … [saying] ‘Should this effort fail, we want to ensure that measures are in place to mitigate the high levels of morbidity, mortality and social and economic disruption that a pandemic can bring to this world … In a globalized economy, with a high volume of international travel, vulnerability to new disease threats is universal … It is the same for the rich and for the poor’.

Yet, ‘The Next Generation of Diseases are in Hiding, Somewhere’, screamed the New York Times, back in 2003. All the diseases mentioned in the accompanying article — SARS, monkeypox, new forms of flu — were zoonoses: diseases/pathogens that were no problem in the originating species, but are deadly in the new host. Hence the threat posed to humans by bird flu.

Any time a disease breaks a species barrier, it becomes virulent in the new species. Strangely, this fact is rarely noted when thinking about animal-to-human transplants. Animal organ donation has moved beyond science fiction to be talked of as a solution to shortages and the exploitation of the poor. ‘Xenotransplantation’ is the jargon term for it, but animal-to-human transplantation is what it means. And that can mean whole organs or just cells, although there still are no legally binding global definitions.

For some commentators, animals are the new black to cure our ills, keeping us — or those with money, at least — alive and youthful. As the March 2005 article in Wired explained:

Transplant surgeons have long dreamed of using animals to make up the chronic organ shortfall in hospitals, but have been hindered by all sorts of problems. The most serious is that the human body’s immune system rejects foreign tissue after transplantation. The new method has the potential to avoid the immune-rejection problem and make xenotransplants a reality. And according to the scientist in charge, using pigs is morally preferable to using human stem cells. ‘Pig tissue avoids the ethical problems associated with human embryonic tissue’, said Yair Reisner, the head of the Gabrielle Rich Center for Transplantation Biology Research at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.

Not a word about disease. No mention of the species barrier being torn down. Yet animal-to-human transplantation (xenotransplantation) and the making of chimera (mixed-species animals and even humans when we put other species into our bodies) deliberately tears down the species barrier, with what should be obvious consequences.

Wired is not alone. The New York Times/International Herald Tribune editorialised on 12 May 2005:

We are already partly down the path of mixing human and animal cells or organs. Although it once seemed odd and unsettling, no one worries much anymore about transplanting pig valves into human hearts or human fetal tissue into mice. The key reason may be that these manipulations don’t visibly change the fundamental nature of either the human or the animal. People become much more concerned when they think a transplant may alter the mind or appearance of the recipient …

Again, no mention of disease.

Even the World Health Organisation promotes xenotransplantation through its ‘partnerships and collaborators’ — such as the International Xenotransplantation Association (the home page of which carries ads from ‘corporate sponsors’ including Genzyme Transplant, Wyeth, Roche and Novartis) — instead of acting to encourage responsible science in the public interest, such as stem cells that don’t need to be cultured on another species. Singapore is successfully doing that today.

This is so even though the OECD/WHO 2001 Consultation on Xenotransplantation Surveillance Summary stated, in part:

With xenotransplantation, there is a potential risk of transmitting known zoonotic infections as well as new or unknown infectious agents of animal origin into human recipients and into the wider human population. The latter is an unquantifiable hazard …

Other views simply aren’t reported — views like those of Peter Collignon, of the Canberra Clinical School, ANU and University of Sydney, who asks:

What if we were trying to design the ideal experiment in which a new virus that would infect humans would be cross- transmitted from pigs to humans? We would be hard pressed to come up with a better experiment than what is planned to be done with xenografts (and on a massive scale). Once established into a new human host, human-to-human transmission has occurred for many of these agents (HIV, influenza, hepatitis B, SV40).

Today this is the hottest trend in biotech, the new panacea. Take 21 February 2006, for example. Here are a few of the stories: the University of Michigan announced a ‘milestone’ in type 1 diabetes research using pig islet cells, saying: ‘The goal is to have suitable donor pigs available by the time the University has refined the immunosuppressive treatment to a point that makes it safe for clinical trials to begin’. That same day, Australian scientists announced a milestone for the same type 1 diabetes research, using not pigs but seaweed. Massachusetts, a leader in pig-human hybrids, ran the headline of the Lowell Sun, reporting that ‘Newborn piglets have had human blood, sheep have lived with human livers, and human cells have been introduced into mice brains’. And the Saturday Evening Post, in ‘Saluting American Innovation’, announced: ‘Researchers are on the verge of overcoming the organ donor shortage through xenotransplantation — or pig-to-human organ transplant’.

It isn’t as if the information isn’t available. It’s just not an issue in the media, and is discounted when policy is made. In 1991, sixty countries openly stated that they were involved in xenotransplantation experiments and or treatment, from cellular to whole organ. Now, while we watch programs about the historical plagues, the plaguemakers of the future, acting in greater secrecy than in the past, act unchecked. The dots exist. Who’s going to connect them?

Australia has also promoted xenotechnology, and although the National Health and Medical Research Council has put a five-year(ish) moratorium on experiments with humans, the chimera creation goes on, government-funded. US approval is likely to be emulated here, as in other countries. What is happening here should be our right to know, particularly as this is one of the most secretive — and well-connected — industries in the world. We need xenotransplantation to be a major issue. And for that, the public needs to know what the implications of this technology truly are.

What is needed is a global strategy to fight disease — we need to promote safe science, not an interim technology with a permanent legacy. To paraphrase the New York Times, chimeras and xenotechnology isn’t just science. Mixing species in the name of health is like scattering landmines in the name of peace. The difference, though, is that with landmines, you can sometimes dig them out before they kill, but once a disease or pathogen finds a new host, it’s impossible to be rid of it.

Further reading:

The UN World Health Organization’s Xenotransplantion site

Toshi Knell, ‘Animal-to-Human Transplants: Who Pays, and With What?’, New Doctor, the journal of the Doctors’ Reform Association of Australia, issue 78

Ratifiers for Democracy submissions to the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council:
(1) 2002,
(with extensive bibliography) (2) 2004

US FDA Transplantation Action Plan

‘Diabetics Fly Far for Pug Cell Transplants’, ABC, 10 March 2006

Toshi Knell is a former industrial designer, now full-time writer specialising in science and nature, politics and economics.

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