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Cabinet gives green light for animal-to-human transplants

Pigs are favoured organ donors for animal-to-human transplants Keystone Archive

The cabinet has authorised scientists to begin experiments on animal-to-human transplants. Doctors hope the practice, known as xenotransplantation, could relieve the chronic shortage of organs, but there are fears that it could allow diseases to jump the species barrier.

This content was published on May 23, 2001 - 14:29

The interior ministry said that, from July 1, the Federal Health Office would begin accepting applications from researchers wanting to experiment with animal-to.-human transplants. The move brings Switzerland into line with other European countries.

The new rules will remain in place until 2004, when Switzerland is due to adopt a new transplantation law.

Under the new rules, which were approved by parliament in 1999, xenotransplantation will only be allowed in clinical experiments where the benefits of the operation can be demonstrated and there is little chance of cross-infection.

Primates are not allowed to be used as donors because their close relationship to humans, which is thought to increase the risk of cross-infection.

The field of xenotransplantation is still highly experimental, but doctors hope it could one day save thousands of lives by easing a worldwide shortage of donated organs. Some scientists have warned, though, that animal-to-human transplants could unleash new epidemics.

They say that by implanting organs from animals such as pigs, pathogens which affect those animals could be transferred to humans and mutate, leading to new diseases.

The main obstacle to xenotransplantation is the human immune system, which destroys any foreign object which is introduced into the body. Scientists are working to find ways of "tricking" the immune defences into accepting animal organs.

Possible solutions include suppressing the immune system, and manipulating the genetic code of donor animals so that their organs provoke a weaker immune response when they are implanted into humans.

No organ transplant from an animal donor has ever been carried out in Switzerland, but there have been clinical studies with cells of animal origin. A number of gene therapy experiments are being prepared.

swissinfo with agencies

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