US government regulators have approved what would be the first transplant of foetal stem cells into human brains.
If successful, the procedure could open the door to treating a host of neural disorders.
The transplant recipients will be children who suffer from a rare, fatal genetic disorder.
The Food and Drug Administration said that doctors at Stanford University Medical Centre could begin the testing on six children afflicted with Batten disease, a degenerative malady that renders its young victims blind, speechless and paralysed before it kills them.
An internal Stanford review board must still approve the test, a process that could take weeks.
The stem cells to be transplanted in the brain are not human embryonic stem cells, which are derived from days-old embryos. Instead, the cells are immature neural cells that are destined to turn into the mature cells that make up a fully-formed brain.
Parkinson’s disease patients and stroke victims have received transplants of fully formed brain cells before, but the malleable brain cells involved here have never before been implanted.
Batten disease is caused by a defective gene that fails to create an enzyme needed in the brain to help dispose of brain cellular waste. The waste piles up and kills healthy cells until the patient dies. Most victims die before they reach their teens.
The idea is to inject the sick kids with healthy, immature neural stem cells that will “engraft” in a brain that will direct them to turn into cells able to produce the missing enzyme.
Such an experiment showed promise in Batten-afflicted mice, but such an ethically-charged test has never been tried before in humans.