Sci­en­tists say fe­tal tis­sue re­search re­mains crit­i­cal


The furor in the U.S. Congress over Planned Par­ent­hood has stoked a de­bate about the use of tis­sue from aborted fe­tuses in med­i­cal re­search, but U.S. sci­en­tists have been us­ing such cells for decades to de­velop vac­cines and seek treat­ments for a host of ail­ments, from vi­sion loss and neu­ro­log­i­cal dis­or­ders to can­cer and AIDS.

Anti-abor­tion ac­tivists set off the up­roar by re­leas­ing un­der­cover videos of Planned Par­ent­hood of­fi­cials that raised ques­tions of whether the or­ga­ni­za­tion was prof­it­ing from the sale of fe­tal tis­sue. Planned Par­ent­hood has de­nied mak­ing any profit and said it charges fees solely to cover its costs.

Univer­sity lab­o­ra­to­ries that buy such cells strongly de­fend their re­search, say­ing tis­sue that would oth­er­wise be thrown out has played a vi­tal role in life­sav­ing med­i­cal ad­vances and holds great po­ten­tial for fur­ther break­throughs.

Fe­tal cells are con­sid­ered ideal be­cause they di­vide rapidly, adapt to new en­vi­ron­ments easily and are less sus­cep­ti­ble to rejection than adult cells when trans­planted.

“If re­searchers are un­able to work with fe­tal tis­sue, there is a huge list of dis­eases for which re­searchers would move much more slowly, rather than quickly, to find their cause and how they can be cured,” Stan­ford Univer­sity spokes­woman Lisa Lapin said in an email.

From 2011 through 2014 alone, 97 re­search in­sti­tu­tions — mostly univer­si­ties and hos­pi­tals — re­ceived a to­tal of US$280 mil­lion in fed­eral grants for fe­tal tis­sue re­search from the Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health (NIH). A few in­sti­tu­tions have con­sis­tently got­ten large shares of that money, in­clud­ing Yale, the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia and Mas­sachusetts Gen­eral Hos­pi­tal, which is af­fil­i­ated with Har­vard.

The U.S. gov­ern­ment pro­hibits the sale of fe­tal tis­sue for profit and re­quires sep­a­ra­tion be­tween re­searchers and the women who do­nate fe­tuses. Some schools go fur­ther, re­quir­ing writ­ten con­sent from donors.

Many ma­jor univer­si­ties de­clined to make sci­en­tists avail­able for in­ter­views about their fe­tal tis­sue work, say­ing they fear for the re­searchers’ safety be­cause the is­sue is so highly charged. The Planned Par­ent­hood up­roar led to a failed at­tempt by Repub­li­cans to strip the or­ga­ni­za­tion of fed­eral fund­ing.

Re­searchers use fe­tal tis­sue to un­der­stand cell bi­ol­ogy and hu­man de­vel­op­ment. Oth­ers use it to look for treat­ments for AIDS. Re­search on spinal cord in­juries and eye­sight-rob­bing mac­u­lar de­gen­er­a­tion in­volves trans­plant­ing fe­tal cells into pa­tients. Euro­pean re­searchers re­cently be­gan putting fe­tal tis­sue into pa­tients’ brains to try to treat Parkin­son’s, a strat­egy that pre­vi­ously had mixed re­sults.

Al­ter­na­tives at Seek

Some sci­en­tists are look­ing for al­ter­na­tives to fe­tal tis­sue, such as us­ing adult cells that have been “re­pro­grammed” to their ear­lier forms. But those tech­niques are still be­ing re­fined, and some fields are likely to re­main re­liant on fe­tal tis­sue, such as the study of fe­tal de­vel­op­ment.

Vac­cines have been one of the chief public ben­e­fits of fe­tal tis­sue re­search. Vac­cines for hep­ati­tis A, Ger­man measles, chickenpox and ra­bies, for ex­am­ple, were de­vel­oped us­ing cell lines grown from tis­sue from two elec­tive abor­tions, one in Eng­land and one in Swe­den, that were per­formed in the 1960s.

Ger­man measles, also known as rubella, “caused 5,000 spon­ta­neous abor­tions a year prior to the vac­cine,” said Dr. Paul Of­fit, an in­fec­tious-dis­ease spe­cial­ist at Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal of Philadelphia. “We wouldn’t have saved all those lives had it not been for those cells.”

Fe­tal tis­sue was “ab­so­lutely crit­i­cal” to the de­vel­op­ment of a po­ten­tial Ebola vac­cine that has shown prom­ise, said Dr. Car­rie Wo­linetz, an as­so­ciate di­rec­tor at NIH, which last year handed out US$76 mil­lion for work in­volv­ing fe­tal tis­sue, or 0.2 per­cent of the agency’s re­search bud­get.

Sci­en­tists are also us­ing fe­tal tis­sue to try to iden­tify sub­stances in adults that could be early warn­ing signs of can­cer, said Dr. Akhilesh Pandey, a molec­u­lar bi­ol­o­gist at Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity.

Ex­perts at MIT and other re­search cen­ters use fe­tal tis­sue to im­plant the hu­man im­mune sys­tem into mice, as a way to study dis­eases with­out em­ploy­ing peo­ple as test sub­jects. They add tu­mors to study the im­mune sys­tem’s re­sponse, then test can­cer treat­ments out on the mice.

At Stan­ford, fe­tal tis­sue has been used to study Hunt­ing­ton’s dis­ease, “bub­ble boy dis­ease” and ju­ve­nile di­a­betes. Fe­tal brain calls are now be­ing used there in re­search on autism and schizophre­nia.

Af­ter the re­lease of the un­der­cover videos, Colorado State Univer­sity con­ducted an ethics re­view and sus­pended its deal­ings with one ven­dor. But it is press­ing ahead with its HIV re­search with fe­tal tis­sue.

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