Fetal Spine-Tissue Transplant Found Safe in Humans
Merritt McKinney

September 13, 2001; Gainsville, FL ( Reuters Health) -- Using fetal tissue to repair spinal cord injuries appears to be safe and feasible, researchers from the University of Florida report. Whether this type of transplant can reverse the effects of spinal cord injury remains to be seen, but the encouraging results should pave the way for further human tests, one of the investigators told Reuters Health in an interview.

Though the therapeutic use of human fetal tissue is controversial since it would come from aborted fetuses, there has been hope that the tissue may be beneficial to people with brain and spinal cord injuries. Animal studies in which fetal spinal cord tissue was transplanted to the site of a brain or spinal cord injury have been promising, but the benefits of the experimental therapy in people has not been proved. Now, in a pair of articles published in the September issue of the Journal of Neurotrauma, Dr. Douglas K. Anderson and colleagues at the University of Florida in Gainesville report that the transplant may be safe in humans.

Beginning in 1997, the Gainesville team transplanted a small amount of fetal spinal cord tissue into eight patients with syringomyelia. This condition, which is estimated to affect about 20 percent of people with spinal cord injuries, can cause pain and impair movement and sensation. The patients received fetal tissue obtained from aborted fetuses [6 - 9] weeks old that would otherwise have been discarded, according to a university statement. In the reports, Anderson and his colleagues document the progress of the first two patients during the first 18 months after they underwent transplantation. Previous research in rats and cats had shown that the transplanted tissue can grow to fill the cavities in the spinal cord that cause syringomyelia.

Based on the experience of the first two patients, this approach appears to be safe and feasible in humans, Anderson's team concludes. The two patients did not experience any serious side effects, and neither patient appeared to be worse off than they were before the transplant, the researchers report. However, "it is still uncertain whether the transplanted tissue survived or whether the treatment will provide any benefits," Anderson and his colleagues point out.

But, they note, one patient did experience some possible improvements in his condition that might have been caused by the transplant. This patient experienced a reduction in the excessive firing of nerve cells in the lower portion of his spinal cord. Despite the reduction, the patient reported an increase in spasms in his leg after treatment - indicating that "the spasms could be a result of increased sensation in his leg," according to one of the authors, Dr. Edward D. Wirth, III.

In an interview with Reuters Health, Anderson said that at first glance, the report "doesn't look like a very exciting result, because we didn't cure spinal cord injury." But proving the effectiveness of the therapy was not the goal in this study, Anderson explained.

Showing that the treatment appears safe "was a giant leap," he said. He noted that very few advances in basic science prove to be workable in clinical research. Establishing safety of fetal tissue transplantation may" open the door to other clinical trials," Anderson said. "We hope that we are laying the template for future studies," he added.


Ref: Douglas K. Anderson, Edward D. Wirth, Richard G. Fessler, et al., Journal of Neurotrauma, Vol. 18, pp. 911-945 (2001).