Pig cell transplants 'to fuel health tourism'

Last updated 08:22 13/04/2011

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Development of a New Zealand treatment centre offering transplants of pig tissue to diabetics will lead to the growth of a "xenotransplant tourism" trade, says medical researcher Professor Robert Elliott.

The Auckland Island pigs are farmed in a special facility in Southland and, the company in the past has indicated if the treatment proves successful, dozens of large-scale piggeries would be required to supply global demand.

"Treatments are going to be expensive, and the cost of an airfare to go to New Zealand from, say, Malaysia is not going to be much compared to the cost of the therapy," said Elliott, the chairman of Auckland-based biotech entrepreneur Living Cell Technologies (LCT).

"Xeno-tourism is going to occur - for sure," he said. "It's easiest to do the treatment here, because we don't have to ship the pig cells overseas.

"This is 15 minute procedure - it can be done on a day-stay basis - and the follow-up is gentle, as the cells take quite a while to mature over eight to 12 weeks."

LCT breeds and slaughters piglets so that the islet cells in their pancreas can be injected into human patients to produce insulin and help their bodies stabilise the blood sugar levels.

It is currently completing phase II clinical trials at Middlemore Hospital, with a report on those trials expected around August, after which the company will seek ministerial approval for phase III clinical trials for specific doses of the pig cells.

Elliott said the company was initially targeting type-1 diabetics with complications, such as "unaware hypoglycemia" or low blood sugar.

After 20 years or more with diabetes, some patients can lose the ability to recognise dangerously low blood sugar levels - possibly because of nerve damage which mask physical symptoms - and the problem can be worse if it arises while they are asleep.

Such patients account for about 8 percent of deaths in type-1 diabetes.

"That's where it will go initially," he said.

"Improving the diabetes control and preventing some of the complications symptoms - though we haven't given hope of actually curing the disease."

Elliott said that the use of pig tissue was not a problem for many Jewish patients - the company had an opinion from London's chief rabbi that injections of pig cells did not break religious laws blocking the consumption of pork.

And he said that there were varying degrees of acceptance of the concept in Islamic communities, which tended to depend on the religious sect involved. Some Muslims took a "pretty pragmatic" view of life-saving therapies.

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LCT - which is listed on the ASX - said yesterday that a big Japanese company, Otsuka Pharmaceutical Factory, was investing A$3 million (NZ$4m) in its xenotransplantation therapy for type 1 diabetics.

Otsuka - the research and manufacturing arm of the Otsuka group of companies - will buy 25 million shares in two tranches at A12c a share, and will also lead a Japanese part of clinical phase III trials expected to start in New Zealand later this year.

LCT said it would use the Japanese money to fund continued development and clinical trials of its Diabecell treatment, and that the companies had started talks on a research and licence agreement for commercialisation of the therapy which could give Otsuka sole rights to its use in Japan, India and Asian countries outside China.

"They made it clear that the A$3m is more-or-less key money," LCT chairman Robert Elliott said.

The full phase III trials, next year would investigate specific dosage rates in a likely 30-50 patients but would cost more than A$3m.

The New Zealand company already has a deal in China with Jiangsu Aosaikang Pharmaceutical Co.

- NZPA

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