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Tuesday, 11 September, 2001, 11:46 GMT 12:46 UK
Brain injection offers Huntington's hope
operation
The cells were injected through a drill-hole in the skull
A BBC documentary has followed the first ever UK operation using transplanted foetal brain cells in an attempt to halt a devastating disease.

Huntington's Disease is caused by a single faulty gene, and causes gradual and invariably fatal decline.

Parents who carry it have a 50% chance of passing it on to their children.

While a blood test can confirm whether or not the mutated gene is present, until recently there has been no real prospect of treatment.

However, doctors at a leading unit in Cambridge are just beginning human trials of a controversial technique.

Huntington's happens when cells start to die in a single, small area of the brain which helps control the movement of the body's muscles.

Dunnett
Professor Dunnett: "The cells are ready to grow"
Patients often suffer gradually worsening twitches, loss of muscle control, and memory loss.

Although the disease is inevitable from conception onwards, symptoms normally appear between the ages of 30 and 50.

Doctors believe that if the dying brain cells can be replaced, then the deterioration can be halted, or perhaps even reversed slightly.

However, currently, the only reliable source of these cells are aborted foetuses whose brains are in their earliest stages of development.

The Medical Research Council's Brain Repair Unit has been working on these techniques for 15 years, working out how to extract these cells precisely from the foetal brain.

Now they have started to begin trials on humans.

Professor Stephen Dunnett, who is leading the project, told the BBC: "To be effective the cells have to come from the developing brain at exactly the stage of development when cells are first born.

"The cells are already expressing all the programming necessary to grow and make connections."

First patient

The first patient in the UK to be given the cell transplant is Gaye, who spoke to the BBC about how Huntington's has affected her life.

Gaye
Gaye is the first UK patient to receive the cells
She said: "I think I call it slow rot. I'm always looking for words halfway through a sentence.

"I feel such a fool - my brain just goes blank.

"It's like a nightmare - the indecision is so bad."

Because her disease was classed as mild to moderate, she was able to go forward into the clinical trial.

The cells were injected in an operation lasting several hours at Addenbrooke's Hospital near Cambridge.

In all, six million foetal brain cells were inserted into her brain.

However, doctors will have to wait a year before they can tell whether it has had any effect, although Gaye feels that there has already been some improvement.

In France, one centre has been carrying out human transplants for more time than Cambridge.

Three out of the five patients they have treated have shown improvments.

Their results certainly suggest that the symptoms of Huntington's patients could be eased in the future by the technique.

"A Cruel Inheritance" will be broadcast at 2230BST on Wednesday September 12 on BBC1.

See also:

25 Mar 01 | Health
Huntington's disease breakthrough
12 Oct 00 | Health
Genetic test first for UK
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