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Parkinson Fetal Transplant Disaster

ve8QAd   |   April 01, 2001

The New York Times and the New England Journal of Medicine have reported on “disastrous side effects” reported from scientific studies that have attempted to treat Parkinson’s disease. Cells from aborted babies had been injected into exactly the right place in the brains of patients with Parkinson’s. This particular hoped-for therapy backfired. To quote the Times‘ Gina Kolata, this “not only failed to show an overall benefit, but also revealed a disastrous side effect in about 15% of patientsÂ…

The cells apparently grew too well, churning out so much of the chemical that controls movement that the patients writhed and jerked uncontrollably.” She went on to state, “There is no way to remove or deactivate the transplanted cells.” Quoting Columbia University neurologist Dr. Paul Green in the New England Journal of Medicine, “The uncontrollable movements some patients suffered were absolutely devastating. They chew constantly, their fingers go up and down, and their wrists flex and distend. [The patients] writhe and twist, jerk their heads, fling their arms about. It is tragic, catastrophic, a real nightmare. And we cannot selectively turn it off.”

Dr. Gerald Fischbach, director of the sponsoring National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, said, “This was the first time this method has been rigorously evaluated. Ad hoc reports of spectacular results can always occur, but if you do these studies systematically, this is the result you get. This surgery is not the final solution that people would have hoped for.” The man who has been in the forefront of fetal transplants for treating Parkinsonism, Dr. Curt Freed of Denver’s University of Colorado, attempted to defend the study and insisted that he will continue experimenting with the technique on patients, citing cases of definite improvement in the Parkinson’s symptoms.

Ms. Kolata noted that much more research as to the complex roles of brain cells must yet be done, the bottom-line being that human fetal cell transplants are currently not the way to go. In its editorial, the New England Journal stated: “It is unlikely for both practical and biologic reasons that transplantations of fragments of embryonic tissue will be the therapy of the future.”

On the heels of this devastating news came an announcement from two Boston area companies, Genzyme and Diacrin, and also reported by the New York Times, that their second phase of a new and different experimental Parkinson’s treatment had also failed. These researchers had transplanted fetal pig cells into humans. While not showing the “uncontrolled movements,” they did show side effects that seemed related to drugs taken to suppress rejection of the pig cells. The failure of this attempt, according to the Times, “could bode ill” for the future of such transplantation research.

Past History
For those who have watched this attempted therapy over the years, the above story is merely the latest chapter in a series of failures. Back in the 1980s, there was a report that adrenal cells taken from the afflicted patient and injected into his or her brain could aid Parkinsonism. There was a rush to do this in many centers, but in a few years it became evident that this method failed, and it was abandoned. Then, over the next decade or so, almost every year or two there was another news report eagerly picked up by the national media, reporting on success of fetal transplants into the brain of Parkinson’s patients. They had a common thread, initial improvement, and then within a period of months or a year or two, relapse and the patient’s condition was worse than before.

A more frightening story was reported in 1996 in the Journal Neurology. Fetal tissue injected into a patient’s brain produced transient improvement, but within two years the patient developed a brain tumor and died. An autopsy revealed that the fetal cells had taken root, but had then metamorphed into other types of human tissue — hair, skin and bone. These grew into the tumor, which killed the patient.

About five years ago, there was a breakthrough. Stemming from an October 9, 1995, New England Journal of Medicine article by Dr. Anthony Lang and colleagues, this one seems to have a lasting benefit. The conventional wisdom has held that Parkinson’s is due to the death of cells of the substantia nigra area in the brain. The resulting problem then was a lack of the chemical, dopamine, which caused the debilitating symptoms. Postulating a different hypothesis, it was suggested that without dopamine, the nearby area of the brain — the sub thalamic nucleus area — began to wildly spew out chemicals, causing the problem. The new surgery involved a long tiny needle, carefully placed in the affected area of the brain, which then destroyed the targeted tissue. The results of this were that the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease were alleviated.

Evidence to date indicates that this method has been widely adopted. Reports continue to confirm that it has been helpful in alleviating symptoms.

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