Doctors and Lawyers for Responsible Medicine (DLRM) is appealing to the Government to impose a moratorium on xenotransplants until more is known about the effects on human health and the environment.
The first xenotransplant could take place here later this year, using an organ from a pig which has been genetically engineered to have human molecules in its tissues (known as transgenic transplantation). This will, in theory, reduce the chances of rejection. Some doctors believe that xenotransplantation is the only solution to the current severe shortage of donor organs.
But in a letter to Stephen Dorrell, the Secretary of State for Health, DLRM says: "Common sense should tell us that transgenic transplants actually represent one experimental technique (the production of transgenic animals) superimposed on yet another experimental technique (the transplantation of transgenic organs into human beings). This situation translates into a statistical nightmare, since there is an exponential increase in unknown risk."
At its relaunch in London yesterday, the group - formerly an anti-vivisection pressure group known as Doctors in Britain Against Animal Experiments - warned that even the use of disease-free animals was no guarantee of safety.
Dr Andre Menache, president of DLRM, said that viruses in a new environment may lie dormant, or mutate into dangerous new forms, or combine with human viruses. By introducing these unknown viruses - if they did indeed exist - in transplanted animal organs with human characteristics, the body's own immune system was circumvented, he said.
"We can't allow this sort of thing to be unleashed into the human population. Even if it were to work, the potential threat to public health would far outweigh any possible benefits to a few individuals."
However, Imutran, the Cambridge-based company which is pioneering the production of transgenic animals, accused the group of scaremongering by a group of "recycled anti- vivisectionists".
Christopher Samler, chief executive of Imutran, said no transgenic transplant would take place until the Government and medical establishment were satisfied about potential risks.
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