Vatican approves use of animal transplants 'to benefit humans'

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In a surprise announcement that may spur xenotransplantation research worldwide, the Pontifical Academy for Life in the Vatican has said that it does not object to the transplantation of animal organs into humans.

Although xenotransplantation may provide cells, tissues and organs to treat a variety of serious human illnesses, several groups have called for it to be banned while ethical issues and the hazards of cross-species infection are debated. In 1999, for example, the Council of Europe called for a moratorium on clinical trials involving xenotransplantation (see Nature 397, 281–282; 1999).

In a detailed report released on 26 September, the academy argues that because humans enjoy a unique and superior dignity, and God has placed non-human creatures at the service of people, the sacrifice of animals is justified as long as there will be a “relevant benefit for humans”. Research into transgenic animals is also “morally acceptable”, the report says, because of these benefits.

The report also argues that it is irrelevant, from a theological or moral viewpoint, whether primates or non-primates, such as pigs, are used for xenotransplantation. Despite the greater immunological barrier between pigs and humans, pigs are generally favoured over primates as a source of transplant tissue for a variety of practical, ethical and safety reasons.

In a speech at the Vatican when the report was released, Marialuisa Lavitrano, a member of the Council of Europe's xenotransplantation working group, said that society should be given accurate and balanced information on the benefits and risks of xenotransplantation.

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Bosch, X. Vatican approves use of animal transplants 'to benefit humans'. Nature 413, 445 (2001) doi:10.1038/35097243

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