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Science & Technology

Foetal tissue can cure terminal diseases

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Aug 31, 1993 | From the print edition
Tissue taken from aborted foetuses and implanted into the bodies of patients suffering from several incurable diseases has shown encouraging results

A foetus in its eighth or nint FIVE YEARS ago, 52-year-old Don Nelson could barely walk because Parkinson's disease had reduced him to a cripple. But today, thanks to the foetal-tissue therapy that he underwent in 1988, he is up and about, takes less medication and can once again indulge his passion for wood-carving.

The new world of foetal-tissue research is the best hope yet against not just Parkinson's disease, but against a host of incurable afflictions such as juvenile-onset diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, Huntington's disease and several blood diseases.

But despite its promise, foetal-tissue therapy in USA has been plagued by abortion politics. Former US President Ronald Reagan banned government spending on foetal tissue research in 1988. It was only this year that the ban was lifted by newly elected US President Bill Clinton in an effort to "free science and medicine from the grasp of (abortion) politics". As a result, aborted foetuses are now more likely to end up in labs rather than being consigned to the incinerator, and US research in this area is likely to grow.

Foetal cells are ideal for tissue transplants because these cells grow rapidly and are, consequently, more likely to insinuate themselves into a patient's existing tissues and be accepted by them. More important, they are "plastic": A foetal cell has the potential to develop into a kidney, a liver cell or just about anything.

These properties of foetal cells were first exploited in 1928 by Italian surgeons, but the first glimpse of success with transplants came 40 years later, when foetal liver cells were grafted into patients suffering from DiGeorge syndrome, a rare and usually fatal genetic disorder of the glands and heart. For long, DiGeorge was the only condition for which foetal-tissue transplants were accepted.

Today, Parkinson's disease is the most common target for foetal-tissue therapy. The disease destroys the part of the brain that produces dopamine, a chemical that transmits impulses across nerve cells. As a result, victims of this disorder cannot control their movements and they suffer from tremors, rigidity and eventually, paralysis.

Drugs that stimulate the brain cells to produce dopamine have horrible side-effects, including psychosis, and they lose their efficacy over time. So it seemed a good idea to inject foetal nerve cells, a permanent source of dopamine, into the brains of Parkinson's disease patients.

The results augur well for foetal research. In December 1992, a Swedish team led by Anders Bjorklund and Olle Lindvall of the University of Lund reported that brain tissue from 6-8 week old foetuses grow into fully functioning cells that substitute for the missing dopamine cells. "It brings patients back (to where they were) five to seven years (earlier)," says Bjorklund.

However, foetal transplants for Parkinson's disease need to be tested much more widely before it becomes received wisdom. Opponents of foetal transplants argue the lack of unequivocal results is reason enough to stop further trials.

Denting diabetes1
There are many other incurable diseases that might one day be treated with foetal transplants. In 1987, for instance, University of Colorado immunologists transplanted foetal pancreatic tissue into 16 diabetics, in the hope of getting them to produce the insulin they lacked. Though none of the patients has been able to stop insulin injections completely, all of them require lesser doses than before.

Experiments on rats have demonstrated the possibility of using foetal cells to tackle Huntington's disease (HD), which, like Parkinson's, destroys a specific part of the brain, eventually causing dementia and death.

Alzheimer's disease, which robs its victims of their memory and can prove fatal, is another candidate for foetal grafts. But Alzheimer's would be a challenge for transplant surgeons because nerve cell death in the disease is so widespread it is difficult to make out where the cells should be implanted.

Hurler's syndrome
Foetal transplants may also vanquish Hurler's syndrome, an enzyme deficiency disorder that causes deformities, blindness and death in newborns. In 1990, in the first foetus-to-foetus transplant, researchers in California injected foetal liver cells, which produce the enzyme, into a 15-week-old foetus. When the baby was born six months later, the foetal cells were producing the missing enzyme.

Though treating diseases seems to be the most conspicuous application, foetal cells are also being used for basic research. For instance, a Californian company called Systemix has grown human immune cells in a mouse born without an immune system, by injecting human foetal cells into them. The mouse is now being used as a unique animal model for AIDS. Last year, the company used the mouse to isolate the precursor cell that differentiates into all the varied cells of the human blood system. This may offer scientists clues to how blood systems develop, and how they go awry.

Aided by foetal cells, neuroscientists hope to learn what turns nerve cells into a brain that can see, think, love and ponder upon its own existence. An understanding of how a foetal nerve cell grows into the intended body part could also shed important light on brain disorders such as schizophrenia. Studying foetal nerve cells, say scientists, could also reveal how they migrate to the right spot in the brain. Understanding this mechanism will make brain repair a possibility.

Notwithstanding the growing acrimony over the ethics of foetal-tissue research and therapy, some scientists are busy perfecting ways of multiplying foetal cells in the laboratory. If they succeed, it would obviate the need for aborted foetuses, thereby clearing the field for scientists to carry out their crusade against deadly diseases.

xFoetal tissue can cure terminal diseases

Tissue taken from aborted foetuses and implanted into the bodies of patients suffering from several incurable diseases has shown encouraging results.

FIVE YEARS ago, 52-year-old Don Nelson could barely walk because Parkinson's disease had reduced him to a cripple. But today, thanks to the foetal-tissue therapy that he underwent in 1988, he is up and about, takes less medication and can once again indulge his passion for wood-carving.

The new world of foetal-tissue research is the best hope yet against not just Parkinson's disease, but against a host of incurable afflictions such as juvenile-onset diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, Huntington's disease and several blood diseases.

But despite its promise, foetal-tissue therapy in USA has been plagued by abortion politics. Former US President Ronald Reagan banned government spending on foetal tissue research in 1988. It was only this year that the ban was lifted by newly elected US President Bill Clinton in an effort to "free science and medicine from the grasp of (abortion) politics". As a result, aborted foetuses are now more likely to end up in labs rather than being consigned to the incinerator, and US research in this area is likely to grow.

Foetal cells are ideal for tissue transplants because these cells grow rapidly and are, consequently, more likely to insinuate themselves into a patient's existing tissues and be accepted by them. More important, they are "plastic": A foetal cell has the potential to develop into a kidney, a liver cell or just about anything.

These properties of foetal cells were first exploited in 1928 by Italian surgeons, but the first glimpse of success with transplants came 40 years later, when foetal liver cells were grafted into patients suffering from DiGeorge syndrome, a rare and usually fatal genetic disorder of the glands and heart. For long, DiGeorge was the only condition for which foetal-tissue transplants were accepted.

Today, Parkinson's disease is the most common target for foetal-tissue therapy. The disease destroys the part of the brain that produces dopamine, a chemical that transmits impulses across nerve cells. As a result, victims of this disorder cannot control their movements and they suffer from tremors, rigidity and eventually, paralysis.

Drugs that stimulate the brain cells to produce dopamine have horrible side-effects, including psychosis, and they lose their efficacy over time. So it seemed a good idea to inject foetal nerve cells, a permanent source of dopamine, into the brains of Parkinson's disease patients.

The results augur well for foetal research. In December 1992, a Swedish team led by Anders Bjorklund and Olle Lindvall of the University of Lund reported that brain tissue from 6-8 week old foetuses grow into fully functioning cells that substitute for the missing dopamine cells. "It brings patients back (to where they were) five to seven years (earlier)," says Bjorklund.

However, foetal transplants for Parkinson's disease need to be tested much more widely before it becomes received wisdom. Opponents of foetal transplants argue the lack of unequivocal results is reason enough to stop further trials.

Denting diabetes1
There are many other incurable diseases that might one day be treated with foetal transplants. In 1987, for instance, University of Colorado immunologists transplanted foetal pancreatic tissue into 16 diabetics, in the hope of getting them to produce the insulin they lacked. Though none of the patients has been able to stop insulin injections completely, all of them require lesser doses than before.

Experiments on rats have demonstrated the possibility of using foetal cells to tackle Huntington's disease (HD), which, like Parkinson's, destroys a specific part of the brain, eventually causing dementia and death.

Alzheimer's disease, which robs its victims of their memory and can prove fatal, is another candidate for foetal grafts. But Alzheimer's would be a challenge for transplant surgeons because nerve cell death in the disease is so widespread it is difficult to make out where the cells should be implanted.

Hurler's syndrome
Foetal transplants may also vanquish Hurler's syndrome, an enzyme deficiency disorder that causes deformities, blindness and death in newborns. In 1990, in the first foetus-to-foetus transplant, researchers in California injected foetal liver cells, which produce the enzyme, into a 15-week-old foetus. When the baby was born six months later, the foetal cells were producing the missing enzyme.

Though treating diseases seems to be the most conspicuous application, foetal cells are also being used for basic research. For instance, a Californian company called Systemix has grown human immune cells in a mouse born without an immune system, by injecting human foetal cells into them. The mouse is now being used as a unique animal model for AIDS. Last year, the company used the mouse to isolate the precursor cell that differentiates into all the varied cells of the human blood system. This may offer scientists clues to how blood systems develop, and how they go awry.

Aided by foetal cells, neuroscientists hope to learn what turns nerve cells into a brain that can see, think, love and ponder upon its own existence. An understanding of how a foetal nerve cell grows into the intended body part could also shed important light on brain disorders such as schizophrenia. Studying foetal nerve cells, say scientists, could also reveal how they migrate to the right spot in the brain. Understanding this mechanism will make brain repair a possibility.

Notwithstanding the growing acrimony over the ethics of foetal-tissue research and therapy, some scientists are busy perfecting ways of multiplying foetal cells in the laboratory. If they succeed, it would obviate the need for aborted foetuses, thereby clearing the field for scientists to carry out their crusade against deadly diseases.

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