Surgeon's short cuts

15.04.02: THIS TIME last year London cab driver Paul Ferret couldn't find his way to the shops, let alone the fastest way from Bond Street to Harrods, after a stroke damaged the part of his brain that is crucial for memory.

Last November neurosurgeons at King's College hospital in London injected several grams of prepared brain tissue into the damaged area.

"Now I can remember short cuts I haven't used in years," says Ferret.

The cells came originally from an aborted foetus and were then cultured by a company called ReNeuron.

"The technology has been tested on animals for several years," says ReNeuron's clinical research director, Professor Jeffrey Gray, "but this is the first time it has been tried on human beings. We are delighted with the results." However, there was a faint possibility that the cells might turn malignant.

"We had a tracer in the implanted cells so we could see where they were going in the brain," says Gray. "If anything had gone wrong, we could have triggered a gene in the cells that causes them to self-destruct." The trigger was a new antibiotic.

Although rejection is less likely with brain tissue, Ferret was put on a course of immunosuppressive drugs for eight months. He is now drug-free.

Doctors hope this operation can be used to help patients with other kinds of brain damage.

"We are planning to try this technique on an Alzheimer's patient in the near future," says Gray. JB