Brain cell transplant slows advance of fatal disease

A controversial operation involving the transplant of foetal brain cells into sufferers from a devastating brain disease has slowed the patients' decline.

Three patients who had holes drilled in their skulls and millions of cells extracted from aborted foetuses inserted into their brains were still benefiting from the treatment six years later, a study has shown.

The patients have Huntington's disease, an inherited brain disorder that leads to gradual mental and functional decline ending in death in 15 to 20 years. It is caused by a single faulty gene and parents who carry it have a 50 per cent chance of passing it on to their children.

Researchers have been experimenting with foetal brain cell transplants to treat the most serious brain disorders, including Huntington's and Parkinson's disease, for two decades. Several hundred patients have received the transplants in Europe and the US.

Six to eight foetuses are required to provide the necessary brain cells for each operation. Women were asked to donate foetal material only after they had decided to have an abortion.

Early results indicated limited success but the latest finding is the longest study of the effects of the treatment.

Experimental operations on Huntington's disease patients were carried out in France in the late 1990s led by researchers from the Henri Mondor hospital, Créteil. Five patients had the surgery of whom three benefited. In the other two the operation failed to slow the disease's progress.

Writing in The Lancet Neurology, published online today, Dr Anne-Catherine Bachoud-Levi said the procedure led to a period of "improvement and stability" for the three patients lasting several years. But then some functions associated with movement control started to deteriorate in what the researchers call "secondary decline".

They say the treatment is "not a permanent cure" for the condition, but offers a period of remission. Shortly after the start of the French study, doctors at Addenbrooke's hospital, Cambridge, carried out the same procedure on four British patients.

A BBC documentary broadcast in 2001 showed the first UK patient to undergo the operation. "Gaye", then aged 52, said: "The co-ordination is so much better. My legs used to buckle whenever I got up. That doesn't happen now."

A spokeswoman for the Huntington's Disease Association said: "We welcome any advance if people can be helped. But this is major brain surgery and there are risks."

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