It sounds like science fiction - transplanting bits of one human's brain into another. But neurotransplantation, less than a decade old, has given new hope to victims of Parkinson's and Huntington's disease.
Both are incurable, progressive neurological diseases that rob the patient of muscular control and eventually take the mind as well. It's always fatal and until neurotransplantation, there was little hope. Four medical centers in the United States, including the Neurosciences Institute of Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, have used the procedure - with surprising success - on hundreds of Parkinson's patients.
Now Good Samaritan has launched a program to help Huntington's patients like Sam and Jim Fitz of Bremerton. Jim underwent the experimental surgery last Monday and is recuperating at home following a three-day hospital stay. Only time will tell how successful it will be. Sam is scheduled for surgery today.
The procedure not only is new, it's also controversial because tissue from aborted fetuses is used for the transplants. "When people have asked about the operation, I've told them they may not like what they hear," said Sam's wife, Eileen, recently. "But this is our only hope. Sam's future depends on this operation."
Good Samaritan's policy on obtaining the fetal tissue is strict. The tissue comes from elective rather than spontaneous abortions to reduce the risk of infection, contamination or chromosomal abnormalities. But the woman is asked to consent to the use of the tissue only after the abortion - and she is never paid. Identities of both donors and recipients is confidential.
Once the tissue is obtained, it's prepared by Dr. Oleg V. Kopyov, a Russian doctor who now practices in Los Angles. Next nerve tissue from the patient undergoing the transplant is minced and mixed with prepared tissue from at least three fetuses.
After two small holes are bored in the patient's head, degenerative points in the brain are mapped with the use of an MRI. Then the tissue mixture is grafted onto damaged caudate and putamen sections of the brain with a stereotactic needle by Dr. Deane B. "Skip" Jacques, the institute's director.
Jim Fitz was only the 10th Huntington's patient to undergo the treatment. Sam will be the eleventh. Although doctors are not touting it as a cure, so far it appears the operation can reverse some of the debilitating Huntington's symptoms. But with so few patients, it's too early to tell how long the reversal will last.
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Last updated: Dec. 4, 2010