Dissent over animal to human transplants

The Australian National Health and Medical Research Council should have consulted the public before giving the green light to xenotransplantation, says a former member of the Council.

The comments come following the NHMRC's announcement last week that it would allow clinical trials involving xenotransplantation for humans to proceed, under strict controls.

Xenotransplantation is the transfer of living tissues, such as stem cells or organs, from one species to another.

"The risks, if appropriately regulated, are minimal and acceptable given the potential benefits," the NHMRC states.

But Adjunct Professor Peter Sainsbury of the University of Sydney's school of public health says the decision should have involved public consultation because the public stand to lose the most if new infectious diseases are unleashed from xenotransplantation.

Sainsbury says in most clinical trials, individual patients bear the risk of the experimental treatment, with the community benefiting from the scientific knowledge gained.

But, he says, in xenotransplantation the situation is reversed.

"All the benefits from xenotransplantation accrue to the individual who gets the transplantation, if it works. But most of the risk, if it occurs, goes to the community," says Sainsbury.

"So it's a complete reversal of normal risk-benefit analysis."
Public concern

Sainsbury was a member of the NHMRC council in 2004 when it placed a moratorium on xenotransplantation following extensive public consultation.

He says, at the time debate was heated.

"There were some strong advocates for xenotransplantation, particularly some clinicians and some patient groups, and there was an immense amount of opposition to xenotransplantation from other members of the public," says Sainbury.

He says some concerns focused on public safety and the lack of proof for xenotransplantation, while others focused on the insertion of human genes into animals, and animal welfare.

"People were very very upset and angry about these issues, much more so than what one would normally see at this sort of public consultation," says Sainsbury, who is now on the Australian Health Ethics Committee, which provides advice to the NHMRC.

"In view of the degree of public concern that was expressed five years ago, it would have been appropriate and prudent to have sought public consultation before making the decision that has been made now."


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