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People with Diabetes Consider Xenotransplantation

Media Release

7 May 2005

People with Diabetes Consider Xenotransplantation

If xenotransplantation - animal-to-human transplantation - were to offer a person with Type one diabetes a life without insulin dependency - would that make it OK?

This is a proposition people with diabetes are being encouraged to consider by Toi te Taiao: the Bioethics Council and Martin Wilkinson, chair of the Council's xenotransplantation working group, who is a key-note speaker at this weekend's annual Diabetes New Zealand Conference.

"People with Diabetes will understand, perhaps better than anyone, the pros and cons of xenotransplantation because it has the potential to affect them personally. There are in fact several xenotransplantation procedures but one involves the insertion of cells, like pig pancreatic islet cells, into humans. This has the potential to treat Type one and severe Type two diabetes.

"A key question is, if xenotransplantation can relieve significant suffering or even save lives, does this outweigh the potential hazards, such as transferring diseases from animals to humans and onto other humans? "If xenotransplantation were simply a risky trial treatment, it might be that individual consent would be enough to justify the risk. But the risk of xenotransplantation to public health cannot be justified merely on the grounds of individual consent. If this were the case we would have a set of techniques that potentially helps a large number of badly-off people but potentially threatens the health of a very large number. "The risk of disease spreading might be reduced by forcing xenograft recipients to submit to lifelong monitoring and treatment, breaching confidentiality, preventing their reproducing, and compulsorily quarantining them. These measures appear to infringe on rights, so the ethical question is: would this be justified?" says Wilkinson. Alternative uses of xenotransplantation include using brain cells to treat Parkinson's disease (which is currently untreatable) and inserting whole organs like pancreas, kidneys and hearts. It is also possible to undertake therapies outside the body, such as sending the blood of a person with acute liver failure through a type of dialysis machine and back. Growing human cells on layers of animal cells is also an option for treatment of such conditions such as motor neurone disease. All of these are at an experimental stage - some much further along than others.

Xenotransplantation is effectively blocked in New Zealand at the moment, largely for reasons of public safety. Australia has recently blocked xenotransplantation research for at least five years. Canada has also blocked it. The US and the UK permit it, although the UK has a very high barrier. China and Mexico are doing xenotransplantation on a relatively large scale.

"Concerns about xenotransplantation do not stop with public health risks. There are cultural considerations about animal cells introduced into humans, particularly live cells. Does this affect our essential humanness? Is it part of a desperate grab for immortality that humans cannot possibly achieve?" says Wilkinson. The Bioethics Council is encouraging public discussion around the cultural, ethical and spiritual dimensions of xenotransplantation and is looking at the individual and community points of view. It will provide independent advice to Government on its findings. The deadline of 20 May for the online forum and submissions process is fast approaching and the Council will then enter the final stage of assessing the feedback.

Results will contribute towards a report on the cultural, ethical, and spiritual aspect of xenotransplantation in September.

For further information about diabetes see www.diabetes.org.nz and www.bioethics.org.nz

ENDS

To stimulate discussions and inform people of the issues around xenotransplantation before the dialogue process, the Council launched a discussion document in February entitled "The Cultural, Spiritual and Ethical Aspects of Xenotransplantation: Animal-to-Human Transplantation" - it can be found at www.bioethics.org.nz .

Public are also invited to become involved in one or more of the following activities which will be taking place between March and 20 May 2005:

* Visit www.bioethics.org.nz for background info and links to more detailed background research

* Join the online discussion forum, to register, log on to www.bioethics.org.nz/dialogue/forum/

* Make a submission by mail, email or online. There is a submission form on our website, or just send a letter or email.

* Get together with whanau, friends or workmates and have a discussion. We want people thinking and talking about these topics, even if you do not end up writing anything down. Our website has links to ideas on running dialogue groups.

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