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Cells May Help Parkinson’s Patients

April 22, 1999

TORONTO (AP) _ A controversial surgery which implants fetal cells into an adult’s brain have helped many Parkinson’s patients improve brain function and move better, researchers said Wednesday.

The researchers studied 38 American and two Canadian patients who underwent such surgery, the latest effort in the use of cells from aborted fetuses to stimulate brain activity.

The patients were randomly chosen to either receive a fetal cell implant or a placebo surgery, said Dr. Curt Freed of the University of Colorado, who led the study and presented the results at a meeting in Toronto of the American Academy of Neurology.

Parkinson’s, characterized by stiffness and tremors, destroys the brain cells that produce dopamine, a chemical that influences many parts of the brain. The fetal cells are used to replace them.

``We simply put in new cells where others have died,″ said Freed, adding it was the first surgical study of its kind.

Over the year following the operation, more than half the patients who received fetal cells had a significant increase in levels of dopamine. But how long the improvements will continue is still under investigation.

More than one million Americans suffer from Parkinson’s, a degenerative brain disease most often found in people over 50. But younger people can also develop it. Actor Michael J. Fox announced earlier this year that he has Parkinson’s.

Most of the benefits of the operation, including better motor control, were in patients under 60, said Dr. Stanley Fahn, Freed’s partner from New York’s Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. Researchers believe it’s because the aging brain is less resilient.

Many patients were also able to reduce or stop taking medication.

Toronto-area residents Judy Hazlett and Lynda McKenzie, who took part in the trials, said they struggled before volunteering for the surgery.

``I debated a long time before I decided to have the fetal tissue,″ said Hazlett, who was 29 when she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s 20 years ago. ``But you have to realize it’s recycled tissue; the woman has already decided to abort the child.″

Hazlett said the surgery has resulted in ``little but amazing changes.″ She can now sleep through the night, carry a spoon without dropping it, and hold her head up. She is also taking less medication.

It’s been 10 years since surgeons first experimented with fetal cells implanted in human brains. Since then, more than 100 surgeries have been performed worldwide.

The U.S. trials, which lasted nearly five years, were funded by $4.5 million from the National Institutes of Health. They were the first to receive federal research grants in 1993, when President Clinton lifted a Reagan Administration ban on fetal-tissue funding.

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