Imutran, a leading company in the development of animal to human transplants, has announced plans to use pig livers to treat human patients.
The British subsidiary of Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis said Thursday the genetically modified pig livers could be an interim measure until a suitable human organ is found."What we are thinking of doing is using the liver as a temporary support, outside the body, as a sort of dialysis machine for patients in liver failure to allow the doctors to buy time until a human organ becomes available for transplantation," Dr. Corrine Savill, Imutran's chief operating officer, told BBC radio.
Savill said the company is still developing the technique but will put in an application under the regulations that the government is expected to bring in.
"We still have to complete a number of studies looking primarily at the safety of this technique. When they are complete we would feel we are in a position to go ahead," she added.
Imutran is looking at 160 patients around the world who have already been treated with living pig tissues to see if there are any problems in the safety or science of the technique. The human immune system can reject pig organs, which can be fatal.
"They basically have to be sure that in addition to the science, i.e. the immunosuppression being right, that the safety aspects are correct as well," an Imutran spokeswoman said in a telephone interview.
Thousands of people die every year because of a shortage of donated organs. Up to 50,000 people in Europe are waiting for transplants and demand is growing by 15 percent a year.
Xenotransplantation, particularly the use of pig organs which are approximately the same size as their human equivalents, were thought to be an ideal solution until scientists discovered two types of pig viruses capable of infecting humans.
Scientists do not know if the viruses - called porcine endogenous retroviruses - can be transferred to humans during transplants. But the news sparked fears about the potential risk of viral infection in humans and led to call for a moratorium on xenotransplantation.
The Imutran studies, which are due to be completed later this year, will give scientists some indication of the safety of using pig tissue.