WASHINGTON — The federal government Tuesday approved the first grant for fetal tissue research since President Clinton lifted a five-year ban on studies using cells from aborted fetuses.
The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke is giving $4.5 million to three institutions to study the effects of implanting fetal tissue into the brains of patients with Parkinson's disease.
Dr. Patricia Grady, head of the federal institute, called the research promising. "We are optimistic it will be helpful for at least some of the patients," she said.
Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush banned federal funding for research using fetal tissue from elective abortions. But Clinton lifted the ban in one of his first official acts.
Some privately funded research continued at the University of Colorado and at Yale University throughout the five-year ban, but experts said those studies lacked adequate scientific precision.
Parkinson's is a progressive brain disorder whose symptoms include tremors, a shuffling walk and a decreased ability to control speech and facial muscles. Its precise cause is unknown, but it is connected to the death of brain cells that produce dopamine, a chemical key to communication within the brain.
There is no cure for Parkinson's, but treatment with levodopa, or L-dopa, a chemical that partially mimics dopamine, slows the progression in some patients.
Under the new grant, 40 Parkinson's patients now under treatment at the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York will be evaluated to determine the extent of their disease. They will be videotaped and their movements measured by computer.
The patients also will undergo a brain imaging technique called Positron Emission Tomography at the North Shore University Hospital on Long Island. The technique measures the function of brain cells that produce dopamine.
The patients then will get fetal tissue transplants at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver.
Tissue used in the transplants comes from fetuses aborted after seven to eight weeks of gestation, when the fetus is about an inch long. Doctors then remove a brain structure about the size of a grain of rice and extract about a half million cells to be injected into the patients' brains.