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Surgery raises ethical question

THE LIMITS to which people will go in the interests of medical science are to be tested in an extreme trial of a new treatment for Parkinson's disease.

Thirty six patients have volunteered to have holes drilled in their skulls although only half of them will get the treatment - a transplant of brain cells taken from pig foetuses. The untreated group will have the anaesthetic and the operation but will finish up with nothing more than a hole in the head. Ethics experts described the study last night as an example of "scientific fetishism".

The trial has been designed to test the effectiveness of transplanting foetal pig brain cells into people in the advanced stages of the disease. The untreated group will act as controls against which the progress of the treated group can be measured.

Over the next few months, surgeons will drill the holes, the size of a small coin, and implant 12 million foetal pig cells into the brains of half the patients. The remaining half will have small depressions drilled in their skulls. The patients will have no way of knowing whether they have received the pig cells or not.

The study is being conducted by Diacrin, a biomedical company based in Boston, which said the risks were small

But Jason Karlawish of the Centre for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Pennsylvania said: "It is just to see if people respond to having their heads drilled. This is scientific fetishism about exactitude. I would argue it is not good science."