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Pig Cloning Offers Public Relations Bonanza But No Medical Miracles, Coalition Says

New York — PPL Therapeutics' announcement yesterday, that cloning pigs could provide an unlimited supply of porcine organs for transplantation, is nothing more than a public relations blitz designed to boost the company's sagging stock, says the Campaign for Responsible Transplantation (CRT), an international public interest group promoting a ban on cross-species transplants (xenotransplants). Shares of PPL stock had jumped over 50% by the end of the day.

"The public should not be fooled by this latest announcement," says CRT Director, Alix Fano. "These pigs were cloned by the same company who cloned Dolly the sheep. Today we know that, because of defects in her DNA, Dolly could age prematurely and be more prone to cancer and other diseases."

Cloned animals are not healthy animals; and because cloning technology is imprecise, dozens of pigs or sheep may be killed to produce one animal with a desired genetic trait. Last May, the BBC News Online reported that PPL was having trouble producing cloned pigs because none of the genetically modified embryos were surviving to term in their surrogate mothers.

Moreover, cloning pigs will not rid the animals of the numerous viruses, bacteria, and parasites they carry. Porcine Endogenous Retroviruses (PERVs), for example, which have infected human cells, are integrated into the pig's genome and can be found in all pig organs and tissues destined for transplantation into humans. Pigs also carry prion proteins, implicated in "mad cow disease," and they act as efficient "mixing vessels" for viruses from other mammals and birds. The swine flu epidemic of 1918, which likely jumped from birds to pigs and then to humans, killed 20-40 million people worldwide. In 1998-99, the novel Malaysian "Nipah" viral encephalitis virus, which may have originated in fruit bats, jumped from pigs to humans, infected 269 people, killed 117, left dozens brain-damaged, and led to the mass slaughter of one million pigs. A new pig virus, contracted via xenotransplantation, could spread to humans undetected, causing an AIDS-like pandemic.

"Biotech companies insist that no xenotransplant patient has become infected with a pig virus," says Fano. "But a patient who is asymptomatic today could become symptomatic tomorrow. It may not be the 200th patient, but it could be the 201st. It only takes one transplant to start an epidemic."

Nevertheless, The U.S. is pumping millions of taxpayer dollars into the development of xenotransplantation. The U.S. Commerce Department's Advanced Technology Program gave PPL a multi-million dollar grant to clone pigs, and has dispensed millions more to other companies developing xenotransplantation without public input or debate. One researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, A. B. Cosimi, received over 17 million dollars between 1992 and 1999 to study the immune response involved in xenograft rejection between pigs and baboons.

Although companies stand to make $6 billion in profits by the year 2010, xenotransplantation could boost annual U.S. transplant costs from $3 billion to $35 billion. It is unclear who would pay for the procedures, or shoulder the medical and legal costs associated with a public health disaster.

"It is outrageous that taxpayer money is being used to develop this dangerous, expensive, and inhumane technology, when better alternatives exist," says Fano. Taxpayers need to know how their hard-earned money is being wasted."

Since 1905, 82 humans have died after receiving animal organs due to a complex process of rejection. At least a dozen Americans have also died in cellular xenotransplantation trials - after being infused with pig cells or having their blood "perfused" through pig organs. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will not release data about such trials, even though they have been widely publicized in news reports and by the companies themselves.

Last Monday, Boston University researchers reported that 12 Parkinson's patients, who had embryonic pig cells injected into their brains, showed a 19% improvement in motor function, while 3 achieved a 30% improvement in symptoms.

But Peter Collignon, an infectious diseases physician at Canberra Hospital in Australia observes that, without a control group, there is no way to determine whether the pig cells really worked. "You may well get a 30% improvement with aspirin or a red coloured placebo," he says. Indeed, in April 1999, a team of researchers announced that 3 Parkinson's patients who had undergone placebo surgery to test the efficacy of human fetal cell implants, felt better up to a year after their sham operations.

"Xenotransplantation is not the solution to the perceived organ shortage," says CRT's Fano. Aggressive investment in prevention, to shrink the number of people on transplant waiting lists, should be society's number one priority. Increasing human organ and tissue donation by all means possible is the next logical option: by improving organ procurement programs and considering the merits of "presumed consent" legislation, which has boosted donation rates in Europe. If all the money poured into xenotransplantation had been invested in these options, PPL and others wouldn't be cloning pigs today," says Fano.