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Last Updated: Wednesday, 15 December, 2004, 13:23 GMT
China's controversial 'miracle' doctor
Dr Huang uses cells from the noses of aborted foetuses
A Chinese neurosurgeon in Beijing has aroused controversy for his use of cells from aborted foetuses to help "cure" patients affected by spinal and brain damage.

Neurosurgeon Dr Huang Hongyun has been criticised for not having been subjected to medical trials and peer analysis, and because his use of cells from human foetuses raises serious ethical questions.

Nevertheless, many foreign patients have been travelling to Beijing to be treated by Dr Huang, whose operations cost $20,000.

"Our neurologist told us that he had 12-14 months to live," Antonia Shoal, whose husband Bob was last year diagnosed with ALS - Motor Neurone Disease - told BBC World Service's Outlook programme.

"We were told that there is absolutely no known cause, and no cure, for ALS, so we were quite desperate.

"My husband and I had been happily married for 40 years, and we wanted it to continue. So we began asking many hospitals and many clinics in America, and we got the same answer: 'nobody knows anything about it.'

"We got on the internet, and it was through the internet that we were able to pick up Dr Huang's clinic," she said.

Short operation

Dr Huang's treatment is controversial because it involves the use of cells from aborted foetuses - specifically, olfactory and sheathing cells from the nose - which are inserted into damaged areas such as the spinal cord or brain.

Olfactory and sheathing cell taken from nose of 16-week-old aborted foetus
Cells have properties which allow damaged nerve fibres to regrow
Injected into spinal chords of patients
In ALS patients, same cells injected into cerebral cortex
It has also been criticised as there has been no peer review work on it. Nevertheless, Dr Huang's clinic has a long waiting list.

Ms Shoham explained that her husband had only a short operation, in which two holes, around the diameter of a straw, were drilled into his frontal lobe.

He was back in four hours, she added, and he had noticed the difference by the next morning.

"He yelled from the bathroom, 'my God, I can shave again'," she said.

"He'd stopped the tremendous shaking that he'd had. That was the first indication that he'd changed."

Soon afterwards he began to recover enough to eat by himself.

However, the recovery did not last, and within three and a half months Mr Shoham's condition had begun to deteriorate again, as he lost control of muscles and became very weak.

Despite this, Ms Shoham said she stood by their decision to use Dr Huang.

"The trip to China gave us hope," she stated. "Dr Huang is doing many operations on people that have spinal chord injuries. We saw with our own eyes the benefits."

'Miracle' cure

Jonathan Watts, of the UK's The Guardian newspaper, who has met Dr Huang, said that most of his patients came from the US, but there had been some from all over the world.

Each one pays upwards of $20,000 for an operation. Twelve people fly out to the Beijing clinic every month, and Dr Huang claims a waiting list that stretches until December 2005.

Mr Watts said that it was "remarkable and very moving" to speak to patients who had been treated.

Cells are injected into the frontal lobe
"Without exception, they all said they had experienced miraculous results - and they used that word 'miracle' again and again," he said.

"People who hadn't been able to breathe except on a respirator were able to come off, albeit for a short time... there was some change in everybody."

He said that he had seen a video of someone walking who had not previously been able to do so - although Dr Huang had admitted the treatment did not work every time, and that a "handful" experienced no change after the operation.

Mr Watts also stressed that the changes were not always positive.

"For some patients, they get a return of sensation after being paralysed for a long time, and that isn't always a good thing - because that sensation can be pain," he said.

"There was one guy who said he experienced very sharp pain that he'd never had before."

Peer review questions

One of those keen to find out more about Dr Huang and the treatment he offers is Professor Roger Lemon, director of the Institute of Neurology at University College London.

"The amount of information that is out there for patients to base their decision on whether to go to Beijing to receive this highly controversial treatment is very limited," he said.

"We don't yet have any articles in the neurological press, in peer review journals - this is very disappointing from the patient's point of view.

"I think we would all feel a lot easier and be in a better position to advise patients if there was more information about what the treatment involves - and most importantly, what has been the outcome for patients that have already been treated in Beijing."

However he admitted that the "remarkable thing" was how quickly improvement occurred.

"If we're expecting cells to regenerate within the damaged spinal chord, this is generally a process accepted to take weeks rather than hours," he said.

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