It has been 15 years since doctors first plucked brain tissue from an aborted human fetus and transplanted it into the brain of a Parkinson's disease patient with the hope of curing the disease.
Since then, more than 360 patients in at least 17 centers worldwide have undergone variations of the controversial experiment, but none has been cured. Media headlines occasionally tout “progress” and “promise” in the field, and fetal tissue experimenters continue to recruit Parkinson's sufferers for tax-funded surgical research. But the public rarely hears about the documented side effects of fetal tissue transplants, including at least one death.
Experiment Gone Awry
Astudy published in the May 1996 issue of Neurology describes the case of a 52-year-old American man who traveled to China for fetal transplants to treat his uncontrollable tremors and frequent freezing spells. Just six weeks after surgery, he and his wife were convinced he was getting better — his speech was less slurred, his expression more animated, his gait steadier. Twenty-three months later, however, he woke up feeling very tired one morning. He went back to sleep and his wife noticed his “funny halted breathing.” She sent for an ambulance. When it arrived, he was pronounced dead.
A brain autopsy revealed to the study's authors — Drs. Rebecca D. Folkerth of Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital and Raymon Durso of the Boston Veteran's Administration Medical Center — that the transplanted fetal tissue had indeed survived, but not as was hoped for. Instead of remaining neural tissue, it had grown wildly, differentiating into hair shafts, skin, cartilage and bone. Glistening nodules studded the man's ventricular system and, the doctors speculate, eventually compressed his brainstem.
“He died of multiple tumors that were surely a product of that [transplant] surgery,” remarks William Landau, head of neurology at Washington University in St. Louis.
The study's authors contacted him, he says, when the esteemed New England Journal of Medicine declined to print the material and he referred them to Neurology where its publication was expedited because of its importance.
Dr. Landau says he is not opposed to the use of fetal tissue but thinks that risky experiments have been carried out with inadequate pretrials in animals. “The problem with putting in cells that are still dividing is, do they have the mechanism to stop? If not, by definition, that's cancer.”
Curt Freed of the University of Colorado Medical Center dismisses the case as a “therapeutic misadventure” by a rogue Californian doctor who would profit from the experiments. He surmises the Chinese tissue source was “contaminated” and not just brain tissue. In his own continuing studies, only one in 10 aborted 7- to 8-week-old fetuses provide useful tissue, he says. He adds that each patient requires the brain tissue of four aborted babies.
Dr. Freed and Stanley Fahn of Columbia Presbyterian have finished the only transplant study to use a control group — a set of patients who have a sham surgery — to compare to those who receive the tissue. (Thomas Freeman at the University of South Florida is currently doing a similar study.) They announced their findings a year ago but have yet to publish them.
University of Toronto neurologist Paul Ranalli calls the results of the National Institutes for Health-funded study “hugely unimpressive,” however. The control group claimed the same benefits as the transplant recipients, he says. Some transplant recipients under 60 years old reported limited benefits, he adds, but most Parkinson's sufferers are senior citizens.
What's more, Freed at Colorado says about 10% of transplant recipients, especially younger ones, suffer unexplained runaway involuntary muscle tics — worse than pre-surgery.
“Fetal tissue transplants don't work,” concludes Toronto's Ranalli. “It's a failed experiment. I can't say I would recommend it for anyone.”
Celeste McGovern writes from Victoria, British Columbia.