Issue 90, September 2005
Pigs And Seaweed Give Hope To Huntington's Victims
Scientists hope these special pig cells in their gel capsules can help to repair damaged brains
by Chris Barton
Hope is on the horizon for sufferers of Huntington's disease, thanks to brain cells from Auckland Island pigs wrapped in a gel made from seaweed found off Norway.
The genetic disease which took the life of artist Pat Hanly last year has no cure and affects one in 15,000 New Zealanders.
The "choroid plexus sushi" developed by New Zealand researchers at Living Cell Technologies is a special variety of neonatal pig brain cells in a gel coating.
When injected into the brains of monkeys, the living "biocapsules" produced a marked protection against chemically induced brain lesions which mimic the disease. The monkeys with the implanted capsules suffered just 10 per cent brain-cell death compared with 50 per cent in those without implants.
Huntington's causes chorea - uncontrollable twisting, almost dance-like movements - and slowly destroys the ability to walk and talk, leading to behavioural changes and dementia. It has been compared to having cancer, muscular dystrophy and Alzheimer's at the same time.
The new therapy is controversial because it involves animal-to-human transplants (xenotransplantation), which are banned in New Zealand but not in the United States, where the pre-clinical trials were done.
Living Cell medical director Professor Bob Elliott said the primate trials were a requirement of the United States Food and Drug Administration application process for human clinical trials. The application would be made soon and human trials could start next year.
"We're hoping for a fast track on the regulatory side because of the lack of treatment for Huntington's."
Choroid plexus cells produce spinal cord fluid and neurotrophins, or protective proteins, for the brain's repair and function.
"We're really providing the brain's nursery cells, its protective cells - we're doing in fact what the healthy brain does for itself."
The pigs used for the research come from New Zealand's Sub-Antarctic Auckland Islands, 460km south of Bluff, where the isolated animals are free of infectious diseases.
The seaweed from the North Sea contains compounds used to coat the cells with a semi-permeable membrane that allows the transfer of hormones to damaged areas.
Earlier tests showed improvements in rats suffering from strokes, opening the possibility the treatment could be used for a range of brain disorders including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and motor neurone disease as well as neurological damage by trauma.
Professor Elliott said that while there was a possibility in both Australia and New Zealand that the ban on xenotransplantation might be lifted in the light of new evidence, it would take too long.
"I'm not prepared to stand around when we've got these sorts of results."
If the bans remained, people would inevitably travel to America for treatment.
Acknowledgement: New Zealand Herald, 3 August 2005
For further background and any new news please note the following websites relating to xenotransplantation: animal-to-human transplantation.