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Novartis Denies Animal Cruelty Allegations

By Richard Woodman

LONDON, Oct 04 (Reuters Health) - Pharmaceutical giant Novartis on Wednesday denied that its decision to close a Cambridge, UK-based subsidiary that focuses on xenotransplantation research was taken in response to allegations of animal cruelty and poor scientific progress. Xenotransplants involve the transplantation of organs and tissues between species.

A campaign by the animal rights group Uncaged Campaigns--given widespread publicity by the Daily Express newspaper--claimed that the subsidiary, Imutran, had "exaggerated the success of its work" and that the experimental transplantation of pig organs into primates involved "horrific suffering."

The Swiss-based pharmaceutical company insisted that a court order obtained by Imutran preventing publication of leaked company documents about the xenotransplantation programme is intended only to protect commercially sensitive scientific data and the safety of staff--not stifle public debate.

A Novartis spokesperson in the UK confirmed on Wednesday that most of the 100 staff at Imutran will be offered other positions within Novartis or offered severance packages. She dismissed as "absurd" claims that Imutran was closing because of recent animal cruelty allegations or because of poor scientific progress. "The closure simply reflects Novartis' view of how the science can best be taken forward."

The controversy follows last week's announcement by Novartis and BioTransplant, Inc. that they are to join forces in xenotransplantation in a new company, based in Boston, which will begin operations in January.

Julia Greenstein, currently BioTransplant's chief scientific officer, will head the new company. Key personnel from Imutran and BioTransplant will lead the research programme. Corinne Savill, currently chief operating officer of Imutran, and Elliot Lebowitz, chief executive of BioTransplant, will be on the board of directors.

"We suspect that the timing of the merger announcement and movement of xenotransplantation research to North America represents an attempt to shore up public, scientific and financial confidence in their xenotransplantation project in the wake of our devastating exposť," Uncaged Campaigns stated.

"Just 5 weeks ago, Novartis and BioTransplant were potential competitors. Now, they are allies and business partners," said Alix Fano, director of the Campaign for Responsible Transplantation, an advocacy group promoting a ban on xenotransplantation. "The timing of this merger is truly stunning."

Fano added, "It's interesting that Novartis is moving its operations to the US, 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."

Copyright © 2000 Reuters Limited.