The Scientist published a long piece on trials in regenerative medicine using fetal cells in China:
Over the past 3 years, Huang told The Scientist, he has used fetal tissue transplants to treat more than 450 patients. He now has 1000 Chinese and foreign patients on a waiting list, including about 100 Americans, who find him via the Internet or word of mouth. He has also used the procedure to treat strokes, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, and brain injuries with, he says, "equally positive results."
The bulk of his Huang's patients are people suffering from spinal cord injury, followed by ALS, a distant second. He has only treated a few patients with Parkinson disease.
Some of the technical details:
Huang uses olfactory ensheathing glial cells (OECs) extracted from the olfactory bulbs of fetuses aborted during the second trimester of pregnancy. These cells are thought to have the capacity to regenerate damaged nerve fibers, and although research groups elsewhere are conducting human trials with adult versions of the cells, Huang's group is virtually alone in using fetal tissue.
The neurosurgeon's team cultures the cells before injecting them into the patient.
The transplanted cells do not replace neurons, but help the neuronal axons to regenerate, and this brings about improvements in the conditions of patients, Huang told The Scientist. "OECs don't replace neurons," he said. "It's the glial cells that provide an environment in which damaged neuron cells recover."
"I don't know how it works, but I know it helps patients," the neurosurgeon admitted. "But the clinical evidence shows that it can help. And if I'm wrong, we wouldn't be achieving these results."
Fetal tissue research is restricted in the US and Europe, which is why it is left to researchers in China to perform this sort of work. Some Western groups are evaluating Huang's research to see what we can learn from it, and whether more sophisticated and well controlled trials can proceed:
Wise Young, a research professor at New York University's medical school, told The Scientist Huang's work was interesting. "His results represent a credible phase 1 trial that establishes the safety and feasibility of such transplants. Preliminary analyses of the results suggest that the procedure may produce rapid but modest sensory and motor improvements in people from 2 to 40 years after injury. These results await confirmation with more rigorous controlled trials."
Huang himself does not claim a miracle cure. With spinal injury patients, he said, neurological functions can improve, but he expects no complete recovery. With ALS, "If the process can keep them stable, that's already pretty good."
Huang has published some of his results in a medical journal. They provide an incentive for researchers working in this and related areas to make progress towards understanding why this therapy works - and to build better therapies from the underlying biochemistry.