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Study: Fetal tissue offers hope for Huntington's

August 9, 2001 Posted: 5:17 PM EDT (2117 GMT)
Dr. Thomas Freeman, the medical director of the Center for Aging and Brain Repair at the University of South Florida, reviews study results  

By Leah Vermeer
CNN Student Bureau

ST. PETERSBURG, Florida (CNNSB) -- Medical researchers using fetal cell tissue have come one step closer to finding a treatment for Huntington's disease, a brain disorder affecting about seven out of every 100,000 people.

Dr. Thomas Freeman, the medical director of the Center for Aging and Brain Repair at the University of South Florida, led the study that might offer clues about the treatment of a disease that has baffled doctors for years.

"We performed a study in seven patients with Huntington's disease where we transplanted fetal tissue into their brains to try to slow the progression of Huntington's disease and possibly even to reverse it," said Freeman. One of the seven patients died 18 months after surgery due to a heart attack unrelated to the operation, he said, but the progress of the remaining patients was very encouraging.

"We found about a 20 percent improvement," Freeman said. "That was statistically significant in the other five patients."

Doctors in Florida find transferred fetal tissue may slow down Huntington's disease. CNN Student Bureau's Leah Vermeer reports (July 12)

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Huntington's disease is a progressive, degenerative disorder. Its symptoms can be psychological as well as physical.

"The symptoms can start either with psychiatric symptoms, personality changes, irritability and memory loss, or with physical symptoms," said neurologist Dr. Steven Cohen.

Freeman is unsure whether the benefits his patients are seeing now will last long term. This research is still in its preliminary stages, and more extensive studies must be done to confirm the results, he said.

Although fetal tissue was used in the initial research, Freeman said it is unlikely the fetal tissue -- extracted from aborted fetuses -- would be used in treating patients. In addition to ethical concerns, there are practical problems with obtaining the tissue, he said.

Embryonic stem cell research offers hope for a replacement treatment, Freeman said.

ON THE NEWS Leah Vermeer: After winning several awards in high school for her work with CATCOM Studios, Leah Vermeer will attend the University of Florida as a freshman in the fall. She has also worked as an intern for Student Bureau at CNN headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia.

"Stem cells can be grown in petri dishes and neurons can be created in petri dishes, and it's likely that this type of therapy will replace the use of fetal tissue very soon for transplantation purposes," Freeman said.

Researchers have found promise -- but no cures -- from studies using stem cells. Stem cells are "blank" cells that could be harvested and coaxed into becoming different types of cells, such as nerve cells or heart cells.

By growing cells, scientists could possibly be able to repair brain cells damaged by diseases such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's. However, no cures have been developed so far from stem cell research.

Stem cell research is the subject of controversy because harvesting stem cells destroys the embryo, which raises abortion issues, as well as other ethical concerns.

• Huntington's Disease Society of America
• The University of South Florida

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Updated September 21, 2002

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