Doctors have warned that using organs from animals for human transplants could have potentially devastating consequences for society by introducing new diseases into humans.
Six doctors from three separate institutions made the warning in today’s New England Journal of Medicine.
The doctors argued in an opinion column in the journal that before attempting such transplants, known as xenotransplants, implications had to be studied and society needed to establish a formal system to monitor their effects.
Physicians and policy makers “must recognize that although xenotransplantation promises benefits for specific patients, that promise is accompanied by an unquantifiable but undeniable potential for harm to the wider community,” the six, led by Dr Louisa Chapman of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, said.
At the moment, such transplants are highly experimental and it is unlikely animal organs will be a viable substitute for failed human organs in the very near future. But scientists are aggressively exploring the field.
Viruses and bacteria that naturally inhabit animals without causing symptoms can cause severe problems in humans. For example, hantaviruses that coexist with rodents can become deadly if they make their way into humans, with a mortality rate as high as 50 percent.
The deadly ebola virus is believed to come from a still-unidentified animal species in Africa, and AIDS became a menace to people after HIV jumped the species barrier from chimpanzees to humans.
“There are enough risks of infection inherent in xenotransplantation to justify a reasonable degree of public concern,” the researchers said. And they said the risk of disease became even higher if doctors used drugs that suppressed the immune system, as they did in human-to-human transplants.
If animal-to-human transplants are done, researchers must carefully monitor to “detect new xenogeneic infections in recipients before they spread to the general population,” they said.