WASHINGTON — A family desperate to save a child from a lethal brain disease sought highly experimental injections of fetal stem cells — injections that triggered tumors in the boy's brain and spinal cord, Israeli scientists reported Tuesday.
Scientists are trying to harness different types of stem cells — the building blocks for other cells in the body — to regrow damaged tissues and thus treat devastating diseases. But for all the promise, researchers have long warned that they must learn to control newly injected stem cells so they don't grow where they shouldn't, and small studies in people are just beginning.
Tuesday's report in the journal PLoS Medicine is the first documented case of a human brain tumor — albeit a benign, slow-growing one — after fetal stem cell therapy, and hammers home the need for careful research. The journal is published by the Public Library of Science.
The unidentified Israeli boy has a rare, fatal genetic disease with a tongue-twisting name — ataxia telangiectasia, or A-T. Degeneration of a certain brain region gradually robs these children of movement. Plus, a faulty immune system leads to frequent infections and cancers. Most die in their teens or early 20s.
When he was 9, the family traveled to a Moscow clinic that provided injections of neural stem cells from fetuses — immature cells destined to grow into a main type of brain cells. The cells were injected into his brain and spinal cord twice more, at ages 10 and 12.
Back home in Israel at age 13, the boy's A-T was severe enough to require that he use a wheelchair when he also began complaining of headaches. Tests at Sheba Medical Center in Tel Aviv uncovered a growth pushing on his brain stem and a second on his spinal cord. Surgeons removed the spinal cord mass in 2006 when the boy was 14, and they say his general condition has remained stable since then.