U.S. physicians are poised to begin a new era in the surgical treatment of Parkinson’s disease, one that proponents say will bypass the ethical and accessibility problems of using human fetal tissue transplants and be safer than the now widely used pallidotomies, in which a small part of the brain is destroyed.
The new approach involves implanting fetal pig brain cells, which are readily available and remarkably similar to human tissues.
A team from Harvard Medical School reports today in the journal Nature Medicine that the fetal pig cells, when transplanted into rats, can accurately rewire damaged portions of the brain, alleviating Parkinsonlike symptoms in the rats.
Based on these and other findings, a team from the Lahey Hitchcock Medical Center in Burlington, Mass., has already successfully transplanted fetal pig cells into four human patients with results that so far appear encouraging.
Researchers from at least three other medical centers who have been transplanting human fetal cells also are close to switching over to the new source of tissue.
Although only four patients have been treated so far, many researchers feel that on the strength of the animal results, the technique may represent a revolution in the treatment of Parkinson’s, which affects from 500,000 to 1 million Americans, most of them over age 55. The disorder, whose cause is unknown, is characterized by tremors and rigidity in the limbs and loss of muscle control.