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Brain Tissue Transplants Improve Devastating Brain Disease

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In contrast, two of the five patients who received the transplants -- and an additional 22 patients with the disease who did not have the operation -- had declines in most tests and worsening of bodily control.

"These new data are important because they provide the first evidence that [transplants] of tissue taken from the human fetal [brain] can survive and induce measurable functional improvement in patients with Huntington's disease," write Olle Lindvall and Anders Björklund, who are both professors at the Wallenberg Neuroscience Center at Lund University in Sweden, in an accompanying editorial.

But the editorialists caution that the study is quite small, that durability and long-term effectiveness of the transplants is still unknown, and that researchers still don't know how much tissue will need to be transplanted.

One problem with this kind of approach to Huntington's is that transplanting nerve cells into just one area of the brain addresses only part of the problem, because the disease can cause damage across wide areas of the brain, Kenneth H. Fischbeck, MD, chief of the neurogenetics branch at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, tells WebMD.

"On the other hand, whatever other kind of treatment you might expect to come up with over the long run would not be expected to bring back nerve cells that have died, so it is something that is worth pursuing, and it's good to hear that they're making some headway," Fischbeck says.

The researchers have organized a larger study to determine whether the encouraging early results will translate into a useful therapy for patients with Huntington's disease.

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