Saturday, 22 October 2011

Flying Pigs in my lifetime?


This piece on BBC news today about an article in the Lancet brought back vivid memories.
During my cardiothoracic surgical training in the early 1990s, I spent three years at Papworth Hospital in Cambridge.  Eighteen months of these three years were spent as Senior Transplant Fellow.

My mentor during that time was Mr. (later Professor ) John Wallwork . He was involved in a startup Biotech company called Imutran. This had been started by a Cambridge University Academic Immunologist  called David White. He was a frequent visitor to Papworth and all the staff in the transplant unit (including myself) knew him very well. He had discovered the biological process (involving pig complement) underlying the initial aggressive rejection that occurs when an organ from one species is transplanted into another. The group at Imutran went on to produce transgenic pigs with humanised complement.
I remember at the time the great excitement when the first litter of these pigs were born. Everyone was convinced that this was it - the great revolution that was to end the donor shortage and save the lives of so many patients with irreversible organ damage.  I was convinced that by the time I became a consultant, implanting a pig heart into a patient with severe heart failure would become a routine procedure.
What most did not anticipate was that behind that tall hurdle that David White and others had overcome was another tall hurdle and behind that another etc etc. Looking back now, how naive and possible hubristic we all were.
Imutran was bought by Novartis and eventually by a Canadian biotech company. It longer exists and the initial enthusiasm and money that big Pharma has come up with,  soon disappeared.
At times like this, I always remember the words of that great man and anglophile, the late Norman Shumway who I was privileged to know and to work with  - ' the Future of Transplantation is Xenotransplantation ... and always will be. '