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Night of the dead living

National | Fetal-tissue experiment goes horrifically awry; proponents contend failure is an argument for trying again

Issue: "Casualty of 'peace'," March 24, 2001

"They chew constantly, their fingers go up and down, their wrists flex and distend. And the patients writhe and twist, jerk their heads, fling their arms about." One patient was in such bad shape, he required tube feeding. Another suffered episodes that left his speech unintelligible.

Script from a horror flick?

No, that's researcher Paul Greene, describing to The New York Times the results of fetal-tissue experiments. Parkinson's patients received the experimental "treatment" that involved doctors extracting brain cells from aborted fetuses, then transplanting them into patients by drilling holes into their skulls. The procedure was part of a study by doctors at Columbia University and the University of Colorado.

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The experiment didn't work.

According to the New England Journal of Medicine, the cells were taken from unborn babies 6 to 10 weeks after conception. Patients over age 60 who had the cells implanted didn't show much improvement. Younger patients improved for about a year, then the effects changed. The cells eventually caused their brains to overproduce the neurotransmitter dopamine, causing them to suffer excess body movements. Poor dopamine production is the core problem for Parkinson's sufferers.

A Journal editorial said "we must know more about their molecular composition" before fetal cells can be transplanted as a regular treatment. Still, the Journal maintains, stem cells and fetal tissue "are currently the most promising therapeutic possibilities."

Those who see fetal cells as a great help for disease took this as a setback, but the urge to keep experimenting goes on. "This study really points out the problems we have to solve before that can happen," said neurologist J. William Langston, founder of the Parkinson's Institute in Sunnyvale, Calif. He said the research represents the first major trial of this procedure and "was desperately needed in the field."

So a failed experiment may wind up fueling the demand that dead babies be harvested to treat living patients. However, the Journal said that "it is unlikely, for both practical and biologic reasons, that transplantation of fragments of embryonic tissue will be the therapy of the future."

Why? Somewhere between 700,000 and 1 million people are diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. If fetal tissue were needed to treat all those patients, it would require massive numbers of unborn babies. The editorial mentioned that perhaps adult donor cells could be used as a replacement, but their usefulness is unknown.

Meanwhile, researchers still seek fetal cells for experiments. Many hope they can be used to create revolutionary therapies, despite the toll in human life. Under a Clinton administration compromise, public funding can pay for research but private parties must harvest the cells from frozen embryos left over from in vitro fertilization.

The Bush administration is considering whether to stop providing money for such research altogether. Still, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said that researchers' applications should be submitted, and would be considered and funded if it's legal to do so. Legislation backed by Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) explicitly to allow this research is stalled in Congress. At a Senate Budget Committee hearing, Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) supported continued funding despite his opposition to abortion: "We ought to err on the side of helping people with these hideous diseases."

But what about the hideous consequences? Nightlight Christian Adoptions, a California adoption agency, went to court this month to ask for an end to any federal funding. The organization arranges for infertile couples to "adopt" embryos left over from other couples' fertility treatments. If babies are harvested for research, it argues, fewer are available for parents who need them.

The Christian Medical and Dental Society, which is also suing to stop the funding, argues that researchers should quit destroying embryos and start emphasizing alternatives, such as using umbilical cord blood and adult bone marrow for research. "History shows, as in the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, the terrible price to be paid when unethical means are used to reach even laudable ends," said executive director David Stevens.

The groups argue that researchers "knowingly discard" human embryos in violation of the law. The complaint accuses them of disregarding evidence suggesting the value of using adult cells and the potential problems of using embryonic cells.

The CMDS contends that the ethics of embryonic research are based on raw utilitarianism, with supporters believing that the insignificant should be sacrificed for the therapeutic use of others. The dream that stem cells can be used to grow other cells, which could cure and treat disease, leads many to justify horrific behavior. Even if one big experiment fails, the next one might work. The legality of abortion and destructive fertility therapy only adds to the confusion.

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