Scientists use foetal cells to treat dementia patients

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A new era in transplant medicine was heralded by doctors yesterday with the announcement of an important advance in the treatment of a brain disease.

A new era in transplant medicine was heralded by doctors yesterday with the announcement of an important advance in the treatment of a brain disease.

Researchers at Inserm, a French medical institute in Paris, who transplanted stem cells from foetuses into the brains of people with Huntington's Chorea, said the cognitive function and control of their movements had improved. Of five patients treated, three benefited from the treatment.

The findings, due for publication in The Lancet on 9 December, were released after they were leaked to the French newspaper La Parisienne. A spokesman for The Lancet said: "The French are extremely excited about this."

Stem cell transplants are generating intense interest as a potential treatment for a range of diseases. Stem cells are the body's master cells, capable of developing into any of the body's 200 specialised tissues.

The announcement of the French team's findings, although preliminary, will boost supporters of the cloning of embryos to provide stem cells for therapeutic purposes. A report by the British Government's chief medical officer, Professor Liam Donaldson, recommending that therapeutic cloning be allowed, is to be debated by Parliament in the next few weeks.

The technique would be of particular relevance to sufferers of Huntington's chorea, who have a 50-50 chance of passing on the affliction to their children. Affected children develop dementia and the associated symptoms from adulthood onwards. If the early findings from the French research are confirmed, cells could be extracted and cloned from Huntington's sufferers in childhood to produce stem cells, which could be frozen and transplanted back into them when they developed the disease as adults.

Similar research to that in France is being conducted at the brain repair centre in Cambridge - which is linked to Addenbrooke's hospital - where four operations have been done. A stem cell transplant was also conducted by an American team on a stroke patient last year, with limited success.

Huntington's chorea is an inherited neurodegenerative disease, which affects 7,000 people in the UK causing involuntary movements and dementia. Over 10 to 20 years, affected patients suffer an inexorable downward course to a state of complete physical and mental helplessness. There is no cure and stem cell transplant offer the first hope of one.

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