June 30, 2004 ( – A team of scientists has published the results of a series of embryo cell transplants in Parkinson’s patients. The outcome of the research is being touted by Reuters as a breakthrough, but careful examination of the article reveals ambiguous results.

Dr. Paul H. Gordon of New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center led a team of scientists in a test that involved two sets of Parkinson’s patients. One set received a sham surgery as a control group and the other received implantation of embryonic cells. The article is ambiguous about the nature of the cells used.

Embryologists call an “embryo” the child from the first day to about 8 weeks development. The article that appeared online in the scientific journal, Archive of Neurology, does not specify if the cells were stem cells derived from an early embryo or developed cells from an aborted child before the eight week stage. The cells are called embryonic nigral cells. Reuters said the 20 patients who received the implants had “small but definite” improvement in movement. The original article however does not go into detail about the amount of improvement and does not show that there was no subsequent deterioration.

Dr. John Shea, medical advisor to Campaign Life Coalition said this kind of ambiguity is a problem when laymen such as journalists attempt to evaluate scientific language. In an interview with, Dr. Shea said, “Nigral cells are those that are found in a part of the brain that produces dopamine. Well, of course, you can’t get nigral cells out of a four day old embryo because there’s no brain yet.”

Dr. Shea, who read the article in detail, said that there were two problems with reporting on this as a major advance in Parkinson’s research. “First is the confusion between foetal cells that are taken from aborted babies, and embryonic stem cells that are taken from early-stage embryos that are stored in IVF clinics and killed for the purpose. Nowhere does the article say that these are stem cells at all. The other problem is that there is little indication of significant, long-term improvement.”

However, from the point of view of ethics, Dr. Shea pointed out that the difference is a small one. “Either the cells were taken from a child who had been aborted and had her tissues sold or donated to the researchers, or they had been taken from a child who had been created in a petri dish in the lab and killed specifically for the cells. Either way, the outcome is an incremental advance in what scientists know about Parkinson’s at the cost of an undisclosed number of human lives.”  Archives of Neurology:   ph