Can Brain Surgery Lead to Mad Cow Disease?

While the United States is doing its best to prevent mad cow disease from spreading to this country, doctors here are worried about a possible hole in the armor. As CBS News correspondent Sharyl Attkisson reports, the risk comes in the form of a potential life-saving medical procedure using human tissue from abroad.

Amid growing concern that Europe's mad cow disease could spread to animals or people in the US, health officials have cracked down on the US blood supply, vaccines, and animal feed--all possible sources of transmission.

But some medical experts argue one danger has been seriously overlooked: a common surgery in which tissue from cadavers is used to repair brain injuries in living patients.

"There could be disease transmitted from dead donors to live people during operations on their brain," says Dr. Peter Lurie, FDA advisor and deputy director of the Public Citizen Health Research Group.

Lurie says it may only be a matter of time. There are already dozens of cases in which a close cousin to mad cow has been spread from cadavers to people through brain grafts.

Both illnesses attack the brain--and are always fatal.

Because of the risk, the head of neurosurgery at the University of Virginia won't transplant the tissue from cadavers anymore.

"It should be banned. I see no reason for it. It’s just a risk without a benefit," says Dr. John Jane, Sr, chairman of neurological surgery at the University of Virginia and editor of the Journal of Neurosurgery.

On the other side of the issue are neurosurgeons like Dr. Raymond Sawaya who argue there's simply nothing more effective than the human tissue.

"We need to remember that human tissue remains the gold standard by which all other things are compared, and that alone means a lot to me," says Sawaya, professor and chairman of the Department of Neurology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

The alternatives, synthetic material or animal grafts--are both used in Great Britain and Japan ---countries which banned cadaver brain tissue years ago. The World Health Organization advises doctors only to use the human material when there's no other option.

Dr. Jane has now joined with the watchdog group Public Citizen in asking the FDA to ban the use of the cadaver tissue in human brain surgery, claiming it poses a needless risk at a time when the US is working so hard to keep out any form of mad cow disease.
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