New Zealand pigs may be the golden goose for people with diabetes   
By: Lisa Pacitto

People around the world who suffer from diabetes are pinning their hopes for a cure on a pig…actually, a unique herd of pigs from New Zealand’s Auckland Islands.
     New Zealand Minister of Health, David Cunliffe, announced Tuesday (10/21/08) that New Zealand would be the first country to officially allow clinical trials of a controversial treatment that will transfer pig cells into humans. The Phase I/IIa clinical trial will be conducted at Middlemore Hospital in New Zealand and begin enrolling subjects with Type 1 diabetes the end of October.
     In what could potentially be one of the biggest breakthroughs in the treatment of diabetes since the development of insulin, Biotech firm Living Cell Technologies Ltd (LCT) of Australia and New Zealand has spent 20 years developing the process known as xenotransplantation. The process consists of transferring live islet cells from the pancreas of piglets into a patient's abdomen, where they will produce insulin on demand.
    LCT employs a patented micro-encapsulation process in which the living pig cells are covered in a seaweed-derived coating (alginate) to form tiny round capsules that are then transplanted into the patient via a syringe and catheter. The capsules ensure that the cells are not recognized as foreign by the body, so no immunosuppressant drugs are needed by the patient. Rejection of transplanted cells has thwarted technologies of this type in the past.
     The porcine cells harvested by LCT come from a herd of pigs that has been isolated from humans in the remote, sub-Antarctic Auckland islands since 1852. Originally brought to the islands in the 19th century by sealers and whalers, the pigs were left behind as food for shipwrecked sailors. The herd thrived in the harsh island environment for 150 years with no human contact, making them virtually virus free and ideal for this process.
     LCT's medical director, Professor Bob Elliott, began researching the use of living cells to create insulin in diabetics in 1987 at the Department of Pediatrics, University of Auckland. A clinical trial using LCT's encapsulated pig cells began in Russia last year. According to Elliott, subjects showed reductions in daily insulin requirements ranging from 23 percent to as much as 100 percent, and had good control of blood glucose levels in four out of five patients.
     Though the technology could produce significant benefits for people suffering with Type 1 diabetes, it is highly controversial given the potential for a pig virus to become capable of spreading as an infection in people. AIDS, Ebola, Mad Cow disease, and bird flu were all animal viruses that crossed into the human population.
     Cunliffe said he was confident in the stringent conditions set forth for the trial by the Health Ministry, stating that they represent best practice and meet international obligations to the World Health Organization. Conditions include that all patient information and tissue samples involved in the trial be housed in an archive at Middlemore Hospital, where the trial is being conducted; the trial would be overseen by an independent data safety management board; if LCT ceased trading in New Zealand, it must transfer all patient records and tissue samples to the Health Ministry; and any adverse events must be reported to authorities immediately. Cunliffe’s approval of the trial was also conditional on a favorable peer review by a leading international expert to be nominated by the Ministry.   
     Trials in the U.S. using this technology could begin as early as 2010 depending upon the outcomes of the New Zealand study.