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NZ experts to implant pig cells in diabetics

A NEW Zealand biotech firm began a trial yesterday that will implant cells from newborn pigs into eight human volunteers as an experimental treatment for their diabetes.

The cells produce pig insulin, which is similar to human insulin and has the same effect of lowering blood sugar, and Living Cell Technologies hopes the cells may be able to delay the effects of Type 1 - diabetes blindness, premature coronary illness and limb amputation.

Though Professor Bob Elliott, medical director of the company, acknowledges that even in the best-case scenario the treatment would not eliminate all of the symptoms.

But some scientists have warned that implanting pig cells carries the risk of introducing a new virus to humans. Others have noted that it is too soon to begin testing on humans because no animal trials were conducted.

Elliott said yesterday that the risk of a pig endogenous retrovirus - the porcine virus thought to be most contagious for humans - infecting humans is largely "theoretical."

"There is no evidence of a risk" of retrovirus infection.

The piglets being used, recovered from 150 years of isolation on islands south of New Zealand, carried no known agent that could infect humans and are held in a fully closed, sterile environment.

Yesterday, endocrinologist John Baker at Middlemore Hospital in Auckland began monitoring the first volunteer who will receive the pig cells. They will be implanted after two months, Elliott said. The company will then wait several months before implanting cells in a second volunteer.

The cells will be coated in a seaweed-derived membrane to discourage the volunteers' immune systems from rejecting them. Due to the coating, the participants will not use immunosuppressant drugs.

The eight trial patients suffer from a very unstable, severe or "brittle" form of diabetes and were chosen from a pool of 1,000 volunteers.


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