Fetal Stem Cells Cause Brain Tumor in Teen

By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
Staff Writer 

An Israeli teen with a rare brain disease has developed tumors in the brain after receiving experimental injections of neural stem cells obtained from the brains of aborted fetuses.

According to an article appearing in this week’s PLoS Medicine report, researchers confirmed that the 17 year old boy was diagnosed with a very slow growing form of cancer after receiving experimental treatments in Moscow several years ago.

The unidentified youth, who is suffering from an incurable neurodegenerative disease known as ataxia telangiectasia (AT), was brought by his parents to Moscow at the age of nine to undergo the experimental therapy. He received two more injections at age 10 and 12.

When he was 14 years old, doctors at the Sheba Medical Center in Tel Aviv discovered a growth pushing on his brain stem and a second tumor on his spinal cord. They successfully removed the spinal cord mass in 2006.

Four years later, the boy returned to the Center complaining of headaches at which time doctors discovered an abnormal growth on his brain. Doctors at the Center performed an analysis on the tumor and determined that it originated in the fetal stem cells, not the boy.

The problem of tumor growth has long been associated with embryonic stem cell research because these cells multiply in much the same way as tumor cells. While this is the first documented case of a human developing tumors after receiving fetal stem cell therapy, there have been numerous reports of rodents developing tumors in laboratory research.

The FDA has approved the first human trials of embryonic stem cells in the U.S. which will take place this summer. The biotech firm Geron will treat a small group of spinal-cord injury patients using neurons derived from embryonic stem cells, marking the first time the controversial process will be tested in humans. The trial is designed to test the safety of the treatment, not how well it works.

The Bush administration placed restrictions on the types of embryonic stem cell research that can be conducted in the U.S., but President Barack Obama is expected to lift these restrictions in the near future.

Researchers in the U.S. say it’s premature to translate the Israeli teens experience to studies conducted here.

Aileen Anderson, a neuroscientist from the University of California, Irvine, said the researchers who conducted the boy’s transplant followed the protocol of a group that has published only one other paper in an international, peer-reviewed journal, and the cells used were a mixture of glial cells, neurons, and progenitors — “a sort of cell mush,” she said. These are “completely uncharacterized populations, populations that would never be accepted in the US or any first-world country,” she said.

The authors of the PLoS article conclude that while embryonic stem cell therapies should not be abandoned, “extensive research into the biology of stem cells and in-depth preclinical studies, especially of safety, should be pursued in order to maximize the potential benefits of regenerative medicine while minimizing the risks.”

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