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New treatment for Parkinson's and Huntington's shows promise. An innovative surgical procedure designed to correct a chemical imbalance in the brains of Parkinson's and Huntington's disease patients is currently in clinical trials at the BU School of Medicine. In the procedure, fetal pig cells are transplanted into different regions of the brains of Parkinson's and Huntington's patients, attempting to correct for lost nerve tissue. The patients will be evaluated for the next year and a half, and plans are under way to begin a larger clinical trial in Parkinson's disease.

Those who suffer from Parkinson's disease -- more than 500,000 people in the United States -- lack the chemical dopamine, making it difficult for the brain to communicate with the body. This leads to symptoms such as a shuffling gait, rigid muscles, tremor, and slowness.

According to principal investigator Dr. Samuel Ellias, assistant professor of neurology at the School of Medicine, "We're seeing sustained improvement in some patients one year after the surgery. One of my patients who had difficulty walking, bathing, and performing other routine tasks showed significant improvement in his motor skills three months after surgery, and continues to improve."

Huntington's disease, caused by a genetic defect, gradually destroys neurons deep within the brain and afflicts about 25,000 people in the United States. Its symptoms include dementia, abnormal movements, and depression.

"Six months after surgery, Huntington's patients didn't show any further decline in motor skills," says Dr. Marie Saint-Hilaire, assistant professor of neurology at the School of Medicine and trial coordinator. "So far, the procedure appears safe. We need to run further studies to assess its effectiveness." The results of the ongoing studies were presented last spring at a meeting of the American Association of Neurology.

Patent applications may be economic indicators. According to CAS Assistant Professor of Economics Samuel Kortum and Harvard's Josh Lerner, studying the upsurge in U.S. patent applications might provide clues to what drives the economy. They point out that from 1985 to 1995, American inventors filed about 120,000 patent applications a year, up from the average of 40,000 to 80,000 since 1900. "The rate of innovation is an important factor when examining the economy's growth expectations," Kortum says.

"Technology alone isn't driving the increase in patent applications," he adds. "Patent increases were uniform across a broad spectrum of industries." The researchers believe that changes in the management of technology by companies and venture capitalists and the trend toward applied research help to explain the huge increase in patent applications over the past decade.

In a recent paper, Kortum and Lerner examine and discard several other explanations for this surge in patents, including "friendly" regulations that encourage, and courts that rule in favor of, applications, and so-called "loading" by established high-tech firms, which have larger and well-developed patent application mechanisms in place. They say that loading doesn't apply, for example, because the increase in patent applications is distributed among small and large firms about evenly, with the share of new, small, and less frequent patentees actually increasing in the past decade. Further research will focus on sorting out data on the patentees to better understand the driving forces, including policy issues such as tax incentives.

"Research Briefs" is written by Joan Schwartz in the Office of the Provost. To read more about BU research, visit


15 May 2003
Boston University
Office of University Relations