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By Cameron Scott

AVARUA, Rarotonga, Cook Islands (March 8, 2002 -- Cook Islands News)---The man at the center of the pig cell transplant controversy says there’s no question of his company exploiting the Cook Islands by conducting medical experiments here.

And Diatranz Ltd. medical director Dr. Bob Elliot says it’s important to keep in mind that the company didn’t ask to conduct the trials here, but was invited to by New Zealand resident MP Dr. Joe Williams.

The trials are aimed at finding a cure for Type 2 diabetes, which affects thousands of Cook Islanders and involve implanting insulin-producing pig cells into 24 volunteer diabetics.

Dr. Elliot says when he was first approached by Dr. Williams, Diatranz had been contemplating looking at Type 2 diabetes some time in the future.

"It had taken second place to work on Type 1, he says. "Though Type 2 accounts for 90 percent of diabetes sufferers, experiments are much more difficult to conduct.

"Dr. Williams approached us before Christmas to see if the technology we had developed could be applied to Type 2, which is very prevalent in the Cook Islands. So I thought, why not take it where it’s wanted.

"So we’ve taken a step forward. We have unanimous support from the Cook Islands Cabinet, and that’s what’s driving it."

Dr. Elliot, who says the intensity and persistence of reaction against the tests surprises him, claims critics are generating "a lot of heat and not much light."

"The important thing to remember is that I was approached by Dr. Williams about conducting the trials in the Cook Islands -- not the other way around."

Dr. Elliot claims that if they go ahead the trials will be conducted to the most stringent international guidelines. And he says nine trials involving other forms of pig cells are currently being supervised in the United States by the FDA.

"They will strictly conform to international guidelines. There will be no shortcuts," he says.

"The idea that this is some sort of amateur junket is not true. It will be done well."

Diatranz’s techniques and facilities for testing for viruses are the best in the world, Dr. Elliot claims.

"Some of the tests have been developed by ourselves. We’re way beyond the work of even the International Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, USA.

"All we are looking for is blood samples."

Dr. Elliot says Dr. Williams will be in charge of recruiting patients as volunteers for the experiments. He says strict checks will probably eliminate nine out of 10 possible volunteers. The successful ones will be introduced to the pre-trial stage, where their control of diabetes will be optimized by orthodox treatments.

They will then be progressively transplanted with the pig cells in a process that will take about six months. If the scheme goes ahead, the project will start in the middle of this year. Follow-up tests to prove the efficacy of the treatments will take another six months.

According to Elliot, all of the blood testing will be done in state of the art facilities in New Zealand. And he says an independent monitoring system with no government or Diatranz influence will also be set up in the Cook Islands to oversee the transplants.

"The implications of these tests go way beyond the Cook Islands," he says.

At a press conference at Rarotonga Hospital yesterday, Dr. Elliot introduced two long-term Type 1 diabetics from New Zealand who took part in xeno transplantation experiments in the early 1990s.

Both claimed to have received significant health benefits from the tests and enthusiastically pushed the idea of the pig cell experiments going ahead in the Cook Islands.

They described the experiments as an "amazing opportunity" to find a cure for Type 2 diabetes.

Nicki Raffills and Michael Helyer said they were not being paid by Diatranz to push the company’s line. And Helyer totally rejected the idea that there was any possibility of volunteers contracting AIDS as a result of the implants.

Meanwhile, Dr. Williams says he doesn’t want to take the "glory" for suggesting that the experiments be done in the Cook Islands.

He said the idea came from one of his patients, who was desperately seeking a cure for his advanced diabetes.

For additional reports from the Cook Islands News Online, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Cook Islands News Online.

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