Transplants of animal organs into people could take place within a few years because of the acute shortages of donated human organs, a leading scientist said on Friday.
“It is only in recent years that many of the potential immunological problems, such as transplant rejection, have been solved, meaning the process of transplanting organs from one species into another could soon be a reality,” said Dr Anthony Warrens, of Imperial College London.
Warrens told the British Association for the Advancement of Science conference in the Irish capital that for every donated human organ that became available there were five people who needed it.
Xenotransplantation, the use of organs, tissues or cells from a different species, is thought to be the best solution.
Pigs are a likely source of transplant organs because they are about the same size as humans and have a similar physiology. Scientists are working to produce genetically engineered pigs whose tissues would not provoke an immune response in humans.
Scientists do not know if “porcine endogenous retroviruses” can be transferred to humans, or if they can mutate and cause new diseases.
“That remains the principal anxiety associated with xenotransplantation,” said Warrens.
But he added there was good reason to believe it would not be a major problem. Many scientists have called for a moratorium on xenotransplantation until such dangers have been overcome.
Once scientists have got to the point of starting clinical trials, which could be about five years away, patients receiving the organs will have to be monitored daily for life, according to Warrens.
By Patricia Reaney