Controversial tissue transplants from aborted foetuses to people suffering from Parkinson's disease could soon begin again following a scientific breakthrough in understanding and overcoming the side-effects of such operations.
Foetal transplants were initially seen to be successful in helping people to overcome the symptoms of Parkinson's, a neurodegenerative disease, but were soon stopped in the early 2000s when some patients began to suffer from jerky, involuntary movements.
However, a study by scientists funded by the Medical Research Council has found that the side-effects can be overcome with the help of a drug that works on repairing cells in the brain where the transplant took place.
Parkinson's disease is caused by a gradual loss of certain nerve cells in the brain that produce dopamine, a key neurotransmitter that controls the transmission of signals. By transplanting dopamine-producing nerve cells from foetuses, many patients recovered significantly, although some went on to suffer dyskinesias – involuntary muscle spasms.
Marios Politis, of Imperial College, London, led the team that found the reason for the side-effects from transplanted foetal cells in the small number of people worldwide who took part in the experimental procedure that produced a remarkable improvement in their quality of life.
"After the huge excitement surrounding the potential of brain cell transplants in the 1990s, we are thrilled that this discovery could re-open the door to this promising area of research," Dr Politis said.
"We know that the benefits of this treatment could last up to 16 years, and we look forward to bringing this treatment one step closer to reality for Parkinson's patients," he said.
Brain scans of two patients who underwent the treatment but had side-effects showed that they had suffered damage to the serotonin cells of the brain where the transplants had taken place. A drug that desensitises these brain cells overcame the problem, the scientists found.
Foetal cell transplants are not an option for the treatment of Parkinson's disease in the UK but if scientists can show that the side-effects of such operations can be dealt with effectively, then there will be renewed pressure to offer the therapy to patients.
However, any such operations are likely to be fiercely opposed by anti-abortion groups and religious bodies opposed to the use of aborted foetuses in either medical research or the treatment of patients.