Pig Cells Treat Man with Parkinson's Disease

17 February 2002


It's one thing to be a guinea pig for medicine, but in 1996, Jim Finn agreed to be part pig. Finn was a victim of Parkinson's disease and allowed surgeons to inject his brain with 12 million brain cells from a pig. Researchers hoped that the foetal pig cells might replace functions he lost from the disease. "This gave me my life back," said Finn. "By now, I'd be unable to drive a car, unable to walk. Now I can walk." The process that uses animal cells or organs to treat human disease is known as Xenotransplantation, and despite Finn's progress, although it saved his life, others could be put in danger from a virus. The major concern is that a pig virus may find its way into a human recipient and then gain the ability to spread amongst humans, causing a new kind of epidemic. So is this a real risk ? Well, in the lab, pig cells are known to transfer "pervs," which stands for porcine endogenous retroviruses, into human cells. But although pig viruses can get into human cells, no pig retrovirus has ever made a human sick. The risk of pervs, however small, makes Jim Finn a guinea pig for life. Doctors must routinely check him and more than 100 other pig-cell-patients worldwide for infections. So far, none have contracted a virus to be alarmed about. Some people are worried that patients like Finn could be carriers of sleeper viruses that could infect the rest of the population. "That's the possibility. It can't be denied," says Finn. But what can not be denied, is that he is walking - over five years later. "Research has got to continue. There are too many people sick and need these cells and organs and tissues,".


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