Fetal Cell Experiments on Patients: Not Learning Their Lessons

The journal Science reports that scientists in Europe, in collaboration with American researchers, are planning new trials using aborted fetal tissue in an attempt to treat Parkinson’s disease, despite what is termed a “growing scepticism” among the scientific community about the wisdom of such fetal cell trials.

Scepticism indeed. Perhaps they need to be reminded of the last few times when fetal cells were used in attempts to treat patients for neurological conditions, especially Parkinson’s. Most prominent was the 2001 published report of the clinical trial showing that Parkinson’s patients not only did not improve, but a significant number of the transplants were deleterious to the patients. The New York Times story called the outcome “devastating”; “the patients writhed and jerked uncontrollably.” Or there was the other large clinical trial published in 2003, showing similar results, with significant numbers of patients with worsened conditions. Or the followup report on some of the patients who did not worsen immediately, published in 2008, showing that those fetal grafts had developed Parkinson’s characteristics. And then there are the papers showing “graft overgrowth” (interesting euphemism) in a Parkinson’s patient and a Huntington’s patient, both treated with injections of fetal cells into their brains.

According to the story in Science, even the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research has become much more cautious about cell therapy, noting the foundation is now funding new drug development and very little stem cell research.

Another feature of the “graft overgrowth” that has been seen is tumors. In February 2009 the story broke that a young Israeli boy had developed tumors, from a fetal stem cell transplant.

All of this endangering of patients with fetal cells, while adult stem cells already have shown real promise. An Australian group has successfully treated Parkinson’s in mice using adult stem cells. And in February 2009, Levesque et al. published a case study showing a Parkinson’s patient’s own adult stem cells ameliorated his symptoms for almost five years. It would seem the payoff is already coming from adult stem cells.

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