FETAL CELL TRANSPLANTS: Mixed Results Fuel Controversy
Cells taken from aborted fetuses and transplanted into the brains of Parkinson's patients are "a moderately effective treatment" for younger patients but do not appear to benefit older individuals, researchers said yesterday. The results of the first federally funded study to "meticulous[ly]" examine fetal tissue transplants came after initial reports of "dramatic improvement" among Parkinson's patients who had the procedure fueled demand for the expensive treatment (Okie, Washington Post, 4/22). The results are "certain to inflame a debate that has divided abortion rights advocates and opponents for more than a decade: the questions of whether fetal tissue should be used in medical research, and whether taxpayers should pay for it." The four-year study enrolled 40 patients. Half received the fetal implants and the remainder underwent a sham surgery in which surgeons drilled holes in their skulls to mimic neurosurgery (Stolberg, New York Times, 4/22). The researchers found that two-thirds of those participants who received the transplants -- each transplant required four fetuses -- saw their dopamine levels jump 20%. However, one year after the surgery, only those patients under age 60 showed improvement "when doctors tested muscle control, stiffness and other motor functions," although they rated their overall condition about the same as those who didn't receive the treatment. Experts are at odds over how to interpret the results. Gerald Fischbach, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, called for more data, saying, "There's enormous individual variation" in outcomes. But Abraham Lieberman, medical director of the National Parkinson Foundation, was less optimistic, calling it "a boutique operation." He said, "In terms of what it means practically to patients, it is not like a new drug for Parkinson's disease that's going to affect thousands and thousands of people" (Washington Post, 4/22).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.