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Scientists play down fears over animal-to-human transplants

The world's first cloned pigs: several companies are trying to produce pigs whose organs can be transplanted into humans Keystone

Swiss scientists say a decision by a British company to stop research into cloning animals for transplant purposes won't prevent them from pressing ahead with their research.

The Swiss response comes after the Roslin Institute in Scotland, which created the world’s first cloned sheep, Dolly, announced it would no longer pursue research in this field.

The Roslin Institute said the decision was taken for purely economic reasons, after its American backers, Geron Bio-Med, cut its funding for research into producing genetically altered pig organs for transplants in humans.

The director of the Institute, Graham Bulfield, denied Geron’s decision was based on concerns over the possible health risk of animal-to-human transplants. “We haven’t uncovered anything new or dangerous about xenotransplantion…”

The main fear is that transplanted organs from pigs could transmit potentially deadly animal viruses to humans.

In Switzerland, Francois Mosimann, president of the study group on xenotransplants, Swisstransplant, described the volte-face by the Anglo-American group as “a minor setback”, and said he was optimistic about the future of such research.

His words were echoed by the president of the Lausanne Federal Polytechnic, Patrick Aebischer, who said transplants into humans of isolated cells from calves and hamsters had caused no problems.

A British subsidiary of the Swiss Novartis group, Imutran, confirmed that it would be proceeding with its xenotransplantation programme.

The market for pig organs is potentially worth billions of dollars, given the shortage of human donors. Tens of thousands of people worldwide are waiting for hearts, livers, kidneys and other organs.

Switzerland has yet to formulate laws to deal with the issues related to animal organ transplants. To encourage a public debate the Swiss Science Council has set up an Internet site with a discussion forum.

swissinfo with agencies

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR