New Zealand’s medical reputation has been put at risk by the Government approving an animal to human transplant technique before it has been properly assessed, the Sustainability Council believes. The approval granted to Living Cells Technology (LCT) flies in the face of strong opposing submissions from the leading relevant professional bodies and the New Zealand Medical Association.

Due to the risk that serious infectious diseases could be passed on with transplants, international medical bodies maintain that there must be good evidence a procedure will work before it is trialled on humans. This is basic medical ethics.

Yet the leading international association of medical specialists on such transplants is not convinced LCT’s technique is adequately proven. The International Xenotransplantation Association (IXA) has repeatedly questioned in the scientific journals whether the technique is sufficiently effective.

The goal of transplanting pig cells to humans is to treat Type 1 diabetes. However, the local association of diabetes medical specialists, the New Zealand Society for the Study of Diabetes, similarly opposes use of the technique before its effectiveness is satisfactorily demonstrated. The New Zealand Medical Association goes further and calls for a moratorium to match Australia’s position.

Key sections of the health bureaucracy have been recommending approval in spite of these clear professional stances. Their reports have also gone against the strong advice of New Zealand’s Health and Disability Commissioner, Ron Patterson. As the community is the ultimate risk-bearer of infectious disease, he recommends that what he calls “collective consent” must be obtained before any decision to proceed. No such public consultation has been undertaken to allow the potential benefits to diabetes patients to be assessed against the risks to the wider community.

Neither had a formal study been made of the complete costs and benefits of the trial proceeding when officials first recommended an approval. Yet this appears necessary to meet the Medicines Act requirement that the “procedure does not pose an unacceptable risk to the health or safety of the public”. Whether any such study has since been undertaken as part of the National Health Committee report is unknown as the Government has refused access to copies of the main reports on the application.

The requirement that the trial must first obtain a favourable peer review does not remove the need to also satisfy the tests the Medicines Act sets and the Government has yet to publicly demonstrate it has met these. Health Minister David Cunliffe has for some time been standing against considerable pressure to approve this application and the community is entitled to a full and frank disclosure of what has now changed.