Pig-cell transplant treatment denied

Eight months ago Graeme Collinson's pancreas dissolved, turning him into a type 1 diabetic overnight.

Today, after a six-month stint in hospital, he's counting his blessings.

"I'm very lucky because I'm alive. I should have died. You don't normally survive that."

But Mr Collinson also faces a dilemma - whether to travel to Mexico for a $50,000 pig cell transplant that could dramatically improve his quality of life. He would much rather have the treatment here, but animal-to-human transplants are banned.

Mr Collinson is not alone in circumventing government bans on xenotransplants. So-called "xenotourists" are travelling to Mexico and other locations for life-saving transplants of animal cells to treat diseases such as type 1 diabetes.

But there are fears that such transplants could heighten the risk of cross-species virus infection.

"It's occurred in this country and it's occurred in Canada and Germany," said Living Cell Technologies medical director Bob Elliot.

Living Cell had been developing a diabetic treatment here using pig cells but was stopped in the late 1990s when a moratorium was imposed.

Ministry of Health acting director-general Gillian Durham said the ministry was aware of concerns about xenotourism.

The number of people internationally who had received a xenotransplantation was very low, she said, and the ministry would be informed by Bioethics Council dialogue on the subject.

The council's discussion document raised the spectre of requiring travellers to disclose whether they had "xenografts", of having a register of all recipients, and a requirement for regular monitoring.

Mr Collinson said such controls were unworkable.

"To control xenotourists they are going to need a very large prison. What are they going to do - Send you back to where you've come from? Put you in quarantine? For what purpose? I'm a citizen.

"If they do put me in quarantine, so be it."

Mr Collinson, whose twin brother David is one of the founders of Living Cell, said his necrosis of the pancreas had given him a clear understanding of what it was to be a diabetic.

"Type 1 diabetics live in terror of dying during the night.

If they haven't eaten enough food in the evening and for some reason take more insulin than they should do, they can end up at 4am with insufficient blood sugar, which effects their brain and they could stop breathing and die."

He said even if the transplant only worked at 10 per cent of its efficiency, his life would be completely changed because his blood sugar highs or lows would be controlled by insulin-producing pig cells in his body.

"The chances of surviving the night go up dramatically."

Mr Collinson is disappointed that the Government has just extended the moratorium until December 2006.

"If the Government can't make up its mind I'll have to go offshore. That will mean the Government is in the worst possible position."

He said strict controls - such as having blood tests every three months, not donating blood, and being monitored by a doctor - would enable transplants to happen here.

"If I have a transplant offshore nobody will know when I've had it, if I've had it, and they'll have no control. I think that's wrong."

Dr Durham said transfer of known animal infections could be minimised by rigorous screening of source animals and appropriate treatment of transplant recipients if infection occurred.

She said more serious public health concerns related to the possibility of new infectious organisms emerging and infecting humans.

"The transmission of retroviruses to humans via xenotransplantation is a credible potential risk. However, the magnitude of the risk is the subject of considerable debate among experts."

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