Advisors to the British government have recommended that people who receive a pig heart transplant can never have unprotected sex and, therefore, can never have children. It doesn't end there: recipients must agree to a life of blood tests and other monitoring; they must inform the authorities of each person they have sex with and those sexual partners must be identified to their respective GPs. A brief (and totally unrepresentative) poll of my friends and family reveals that most people regard these measures as rather extreme.
You can hardly blame the British regulators for being so cautious about pig-to-human transplants (xenotransplantation). The UK government - both the current and the previous - has long had an unhappy relationship with science and has often ended up with egg on its face. A series of political blunders in scientific issues has made politicians and government experts think twice before they allow a new technology to be taken to the marketplace.
But being overcautious about new technologies isn't helpful either. Whilst strict controls or moratoria may prevent a public relations disaster for government, they may not enhance public confidence, either in politicians or in scientists. Worse, they may mean that society misses out on an important medical advance. Sarah Kite, speaking for the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, was close to the truth when she said: 'The fact that the steering group advises, that patients and their close contacts should agree to abide by highly intrusive conditions for the rest of their lives indicates that the risk is significant and that the consequences of disease transfer occurring could be extremely serious.'
Whilst I suspect that Sarah Kite's concern for transplant recipients is a little disingenuous, her point about public perceptions is well made. The punishing regime that the advisors have recommended for recipients does not inspire confidence. Recommendations for such tight regulations suggest one of two things: either we know too little at the moment about the safety of xenotransplantation to proceed or the advisors are being too cautious because they fear being blamed if anything goes wrong in the future.
As laymen, our problem is that we cannot make our own judgement on the issue because we have not been given a full picture of the science of xenotransplantation. Media reports have made mention of Porcine Endogenous Retroviruses (which have the unfortunate acronym, Pervs). But they provide little information about them. All we are told is that one study of 160 transplants found no evidence of the transmission of Pervs but little else is revealed.
I, like many others, hope that xenotransplants are proven to be safe and that they can be offered to the 5500 British patients waiting for donor organs. But in the meantime, perhaps we can be entrusted with a little more science, so that we can draw our own conclusions.