Ethics reports on animal organ transplants multiply

January 12, 1996

In the rush to examine the ethics of transplanting animal organs into humans, three different top committees are to produce reports, writes Aisling Irwin.

The Government this week announced the membership of an advisory group it has appointed to study the issue. But the Nuffield Council on Bioethics has been considering the same issue since January 1995 and is due to report in early March. Meanwhile the House of Lords science and technology committee has agreed in principle to consider the issue, although its final decision is not due till next week.

The ethical issues are urgent because of the advanced state of xenotransplantation. The technique hit the headlines last September when scientists announced that they had successfully transplanted hearts from pigs into monkeys. They said that trials would start on humans before September 1996.

David White, director of research at Imutran, a biotechnology company in Cambridge, said that scientists had overcome a major barrier to transplants between species, rejection by the host's immune system of the foreign organ.

They did this by using a pig genetically engineered to produce certain proteins on the surface of its organs that trick the host into accepting it.

The Government immediately announced that it would establish an ethics advisory group, which met for the first time on December 18, although its full membership has only just been made public.

Chairman Ian Kennedy, professor of medical law and ethics at King's College, London, denied that his report would merely duplicate the work of the Nuffield group. "I think the Government's position was that it would be appropriate for it to have considered the matter qua government," he said. "It's obviously helpful to have had another group look at the subject matter."

David Shapiro, executive secretary of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, admitted that he had a "slight feeling of why didn't they let us get on with it?" Because the new group will not report till, at the earliest, the summer, the Government's reponse will be delayed.

He said: "It will cause delays but one hopes that our report will start a process of discussion. All three reports could be useful."

The advisory group's terms of reference are to review the acceptability of xenotransplantation and, if it is appropriate, to suggest an ethical framework within which it could take place. The academics in the group are: John Salaman, retired professor of transplant surgery at the University of Wales College of Medicine; Kay Davies, professor of genetics at Keble College, Oxford; Robin Downie, professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow University and Herbert Sewell, professor of immunology at Queen's Medical Centre, University Hospital, Nottingham. To submit evidence write first to Room 507, Eileen House, 80-94 Newington Causeway, London SE1 6EF.

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