Fetal Tissue Research Raises Disturbing Questions
By Paul Ranalli
(Dr. Paul Ranalli is a pro-life neurologist in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Toronto.)
On the subject of the biomedical use of human fetal tissue
, this is an important question to ponder. For alongside the promise of fetal-tissue research there are uncomfortable realities. As recent ghoulish news reports have revealed, medical researchers at universities in British Columbia, Nebraska, Colorado and likely other institutions do not simply order “fetal tissue” from providers—they order leg bones, livers, spleens, whole eyes and other organs.
And despite admonishment from the Canadian Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies and a U.S. congressional prohibition against a money-making marketplace for fetal tissue, there are clear indications that just such a marketplace has developed; human fetal parts are being sold for a profit. “In a civilized society there are things that should not be for sale,” Andrew Kimbrell, author of The Human Body Shop, said recently. “But right now we are in an ethical free fall.”
The most direct clinical application of human fetal tissue has been the decade-long experience in transplanting fetal brain tissue into the brains of patients with Parkinson’s disease
. Herein lies a tale of desperate hope, moral anguish, initial scientific and public enthusiasm and ultimate though still strongly denied—failure. Parkinson’s disease is a progressive, degenerative brain disorder characterized chiefly by a loss of motor control, involuntary tremor, muscle rigidity, slowness of movement and problems with balance and walking. The exact cause of Parkinson’s disease is unknown, but we do know it is associated with a decline in the production of the brain chemical dopamine. In the early to moderate stages of the disease, neurologists have a fair degree of success treating patients with a variety of medications that either boost dopamine synthesis, or directly stimulate dopamine receptors in key deep brain structures. After a number of years, however, the effectiveness of these drugs wears off, or is accompanied by troubling side effects.
A search for novel therapies has led to a variety of experimental brain surgery procedures. The theory behind fetal transplantation is that dopamine-producing cells extracted from the brains of several aborted fetuses can be injected deep into critical brain regions of the recipient Parkinson’s disease patient, hopefully to take root and begin to produce the needed dopamine. However, a series of limited, uncontrolled case reports provided little evidence of real success, despite tremendous hype that continued to capture the public imagination.