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Monday, November 15, 1999 

Ontario to pump millions into pig-to-people transplants

By KELLEY TEAHEN, Free Press Reporter

Hopes for transplanting pig organs into humans will get an "essential" boost today from the Ontario government, says a member of London's transplant research team.

In London today, Science and Technology Minister Jim Wilson is expected to announce an allocation worth millions of dollars from Ontario's Research and Development Challenge Fund.

It will match money already committed to the project by several medical industries and London's Robarts Research Institute.

Robert Zhong, one of 12 scientists on the London Transplant Research Team, said the announcement at the institute will put London "in the competitive position for this cutting-edge research."

The five-year project, started this year, is a joint venture of the research institute, the London Health Sciences Centre and the University of Western Ontario, said Zhong, director of experimental surgery in the multi-organ transplant program at London Health Sciences Centre.

"Canada is one of the top five leading countries in the field," he said. The others are Australia, Sweden, the U.K. and the U.S.

The London-based project is in the "leading position" in Canada.

But federal money in Canada for research into xenotransplantation -- transplants from one species to another -- is "in the bottom level, compared with other industrial countries," Zhong said.

The London research, led by doctors Tony Jevnikar and William Wall, has been done in partnership with a science team at Cambridge University in England, which began breeding pigs injected with human genes in 1994.

Last spring, the London scientists transplanted the kidneys of a few of these altered pigs into baboons, considered the animal closest to humans. The baboons lived 40 days -- a milestone -- before rejecting the pig kidneys.

While some people may have qualms about using animal parts in humans, there aren't enough human donors for everyone who could benefit from a transplant, Zhong said.

In Canada, 10,000 people are on dialysis due to chronic kidney failure but only 1,000 patients get a kidney transplant each year.

Industries such as Novartis Pharmaceuticals Canada Inc., Transplantation Technologies Inc., Viron Therapeutics Inc and ASAHI Chemical Industry Co. Ltd. of Japan have invested in the project because pig-to-people transplants are "a very big potential market" for them, Zhong said.

Commercial interests include raising pigs suitable for transplant and, after more transplant surgeries are possible, greater demand for anti-rejection drugs and surgical supplies. 

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