The heart of the matter

Lawyers and doctors worldwide have been voicing their concern about the lack of legislation controlling cross-species transplants. Alison Laferla is a freelance journalist.

Eminent lawyers and doctors from all over the world called for an end to cross-species transplants earlier this month at a conference in Vancouver on pig-to-human organ transplants.

Xenotransplantation – the transfer of organs, tissues or cells from one species to another – could ensure there is a readily available source of organs for people who need transplants. But, according to international pressure group Doctors and Lawyers for Responsible Medicine (DLRM), it could signal the end of the human race.

DLRM says the risks of transmitting some unknown virus with the organ are too great. Addressing the conference, Dr Andre Menache, a veterinary surgeon from Israel and president of DLRM, warned that laboratory-bred pig organs carry a whole range of viral and sub-viral particles, some of which will not be revealed by screening procedures.

He called for the creation of a statutory body to represent the public interest, examine crucial issues and decide whether or not to allow such research to proceed at all. DLRM is also taking affidavits from scientists in preparation for issuing legal proceedings to stop transgenic transplants involving humans.

The first xenotransplants took place in the US in 1963 when baboon kidneys were transplanted to human patients. Further attempts have since been made in the US, including the transplant of baboon marrow into an Aids patient and a pig's heart to a human in India last year, but so far all have failed. Scientists and critics know, however, that the first successful transplant is just around the corner and with the prospect of tapping a multi-billion pound industry, companies are anxious to be the first to carry out a successful pig-to-human heart transplant.

The research methods involve injecting pig embryos with human DNA, which becomes incorporated into the pig's genetic code. When the organ is transplanted to a human, the human immune system is tricked into treating the organ like one of its own and does not reject it. Companies developing the treatment have already applied for patents of the proteins involved in the process.

UK researchers had hoped to have carried out their first pig heart transplant to a human by last year, but the Government has delayed the process by setting up three ethics committees to look into the issue. The first two concluded that the risks involved in xenotransplants could not be quantified and the third has yet to report.

There is, as such, very little regulation of what is and is not acceptable. Menache says the legal system is not geared up to cope with the issue of xenotransplantation and there are no international guidelines either.

“It is a question of international co-operation on the one hand and of persuading individual countries to pass laws banning it on the other,” he says.

“Lawyers in this country should be getting ready to take on class actions if it goes ahead. They have an important role to play in trying to put off the Government.”

He adds: “From a legal point of view xenotransplants represent a precedent because we are talking about an operation which may result in an epidemic and affect the entire population. In legal terms you need to get informed consent from the public. This could be either by referendum or by having greater public representation on ethics committees. None of the UK committees even mentioned the issue of compensation.”

Michael Mansfield QC, head of 14 Tooks Court chambers and vice-president of DLRM, says that all those engaged in xenotransplantation could be liable for negligence, depending on causation, if the group's fears become reality. He adds that xenotransplantation is being promoted in order to build careers and make profits and will not help the thousands of people needing basic health care such as measles vaccines.

Leading US cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon, Dr Moneim Fadali, who was also at the conference, referred to the US Supreme court judgment which says that any living thing can be patented. He said that the unthinkable had become lawful and the building blocks of life had become goods and wares.