Volume 96, Issue 9
Thursday September 12, 2002

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Pigs treat diabetes, still can't fly

By Paolo Zinatelli
Gazette Staff


A Western researcher is attempting to find a new treatment for Type 1 (juvenile) diabetes which utilizes the transplant of pig organs.

David White, a scientist with Western's Robarts Research Institute, has been working with other scientists at the University of Mexico in the controversial field of xenotransplantation.

According to Health Canada and White, xenotransplantation is the transplantation of animal cells or organs into humans.

Together with his Mexican colleagues, White has been looking at ways to transplant insulin cells from pigs into humans in order to lessen the dependence of diabetes patients on insulin.

"Insulin is pretty damn good medication," White said, "[however], blood sugar is never fully controlled."

"[It is] commonly believed that the big swings in blood glucose [cause] people to develop side effects," White said.

That is why in 2001, 12 transplants were performed at a Mexico City hospital. Patients were given eyelets of langerhans from pigs, which are the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin.

White's role in the procedure was to monitor the patients after they received the transplants.

Success rates are based on the amount of insulin patients have to inject after the transplant, White said.

In half of the patients, there was no change, he explained. Of the remainder, one no longer needed insulin and the others saw between a 75 and 90 per cent decrease in usage, White said, noting one benefit of the procedure is that it involves no suppression of the patient's immune system.

The transplants were performed in Mexico, where the initial technology was developed, he said, adding it could not be done in Canada because, as of yet, there are no guidelines in governing clinical trials.

Andrew Swift, media relations officer for Health Canada, said regulations on xenotransplantation do exist.

"[Tissues, cells and organs from animals] are considered therapeutic products and, therefore, subject to regulations in the Food and Drug Act," Swift said.

In order for clinical trials involving xenotransplants to occur in Canada, an application would have to be submitted to Health Canada, he explained. None have been approved to date, as no applications have been submitted, Swift added.

At the moment, any xenotransplantation in Canada is at the research stage, said Jilly Griffins, the director of guidelines development with the Canadian Council on Animal Care in Ottawa.

"We've been working with Health Canada to develop a proposed standard on xenotransplants," Griffins said.

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2002 THE GAZETTE