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Major US Xenotransplantation Merger Comes on the Heels of UK Scandal

Yesterday, Swiss multinational Novartis Pharma AG announced a merger with Massachusetts-based Biotransplant, Inc.. The merger consolidates the companies' controversial research programs in animal-to-human organ transplantation (xenotransplantation), with a view to accelerating commercialization. Novartis, which has been collaborating with Biotransplant for several years to breed lines of pigs with human genes, will own 67% of the new company and retain the rights to product sales. Biotransplant will receive royalty payments from those sales.

Securities and Exchange Commission documents filed by Biotransplant on August 15, 2000 named Novartis as a "collaborative partner" but a competitor, who could adversely impact Biotransplant's future if it chose to 'terminate collaborations or agreements,' 'reduce funding,' and 'develop competing products more rapidly and at less cost.'

"Just 5 weeks ago, Novartis and Biotransplant were potential competitors. Now, they are allies and business partners," says. Alix Fano, Director of the Campaign for Responsible Transplantation (CRT), an international health advocacy group promoting a ban on xenotransplantation. "The timing of this merger is truly stunning."

Novartis was rocked by scandal in Britain last week, after internal documents, leaked to the animal advocacy group, Uncaged, and publicized in The Daily Express, revealed glaring technical failures and severe animal suffering in pig-to-primate experiments sponsored by Novartis and its British subsidiary, Imutran, Ltd. (see http://www.xenotransplantation.org.uk).

Just four days after Uncaged demanded an end to all animal-based xenotransplantation research in Britain and called for an independent judicial inquiry, Novartis announced it would essentially close Imutran's operations down and transfer key research programs to the U.S..

"It's interesting that Novartis is moving its operations to the U.S., where animal welfare and biotechnology regulations are either lax or non-existent, particularly at a time when the company is facing such intense scrutiny in Britain," says CRT's Fano.

Novartis is already sponsoring pig-to-primate experiments at several American research centers including the Universities of Ohio (Columbus), Pennsylvania (Philadelphia), Wisconsin (Madison), Stanford University, and Massachusetts General Hospital. The National Institutes of Health and the Department of Commerce have committed tens of millions of taxpayer dollars to xenotransplant research and the Department of Health and Human Services has approved over a dozen human xenotransplant trials already, making the U.S. a veritable "xeno-haven."

"Novartis basically wants to continue doing in the U.S. what it was doing in Britain, and get away with it," says Fano. "That is unacceptable. The U.S. should not become a haven for cruel, wasteful, and irresponsible research, particularly when better alternatives exist."