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Pig Brains and Parkinson's Patients Paired to Develop Cure

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WebMD Health News

March 13, 2000 (Atlanta) -- Pig brain cells can grow safely in humans, a new study in the March 14 issue of the journal Neurology shows. What's more, they can dramatically help patients with advanced Parkinson's disease -- and might one day be used to treat stroke patients or people suffering from chronic pain.

The report describes preliminary experiments designed to prove that the pig-brain transplants are safe. They used smaller numbers of cells than are used in more advanced experiments with human embryo cells, and transplanted them into only one half of the brain of Parkinson's patients. Nevertheless, three of the 10 patients who completed the study showed a dramatic improvement a year after getting the transplants. This suggests that the transplants survived and actually produced dopamine, a crucial substance necessary for normal movement that is no longer produced in the brains of patients with Parkinson's disease.

"One of the three best responders was a man who went from not being able to walk most days to walking without a cane," study author Samuel A. Ellias, MD, PhD, tells WebMD. "It has made a dramatic difference to him." Ellias is the director of the Boston University laboratory for study of motor control and tremor.

None of the patients had side effects from the pig cell transplant, although some of the patients showed no improvement. Perhaps most importantly, sophisticated tests found no evidence of infection spread from pig to people -- a major concern among researchers.

The study also showed that a new way to prevent the body's rejection of the foreign cells could work without the use of dangerous drugs that suppress the immune system. The new technique coats the transplanted cells with a substance that apparently prevents the immune system from rejecting the cells. Patients who received these newly treated cells did as well as those treated with a drug that suppresses the immune system. "That is the exciting thing: If you could use this technique without [suppressing the immune system,] it would be [very] useful," says Ellias. The technique is also being used in other research using pig tissues.

Tissue transplant expert Robert Hauser, MD, tells WebMD that the study represents an important step forward, since transplants using human cells not only are hard to come by, but raise serious ethical concerns. "I think this is a very important [study] that begins to open up other sources of tissue," says Hauser, associate professor of neurology and experimental therapeutics at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "It is very encouraging and exciting." Hauser, who was not involved in the study, says more research is needed, however.

That research will be completed this August, Ellias says. This study, designed to show whether the pig brain cells actually work, enrolled 18 patients with moderate to moderately severe Parkinson's disease. They will receive either the pig transplants and drugs to suppress the immune system or mock surgery, in which a small wound is made to the skull so that neither patients nor other researchers can tell which patients actually received transplants. This helps to determine whether the treatment is truly effective or whether patients just respond due to the psychological effects of the belief that they have had treatment. Further trials will soon begin enrolling patients as well.

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