Is it right to use aborted foetal tis­sue for re­search?

An in­crease in foetal ma­te­rial is ex­pected fol­low­ing the re­peal of the Eighth Amend­ment

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Health Personal Story - Ge­orge Win­ter

The vote to re­peal the Eighth Amend­ment of the Ir­ish con­sti­tu­tion over­turned a man­i­fest in­jus­tice. One out­come will be a rise in the num­ber of foe­tuses aborted in Ire­land. For ex­am­ple, 26 law­ful ter­mi­na­tions were per­formed in Ire­land in 2014. In 2016, an un­der­es­ti­mated 3,265 women and girls who at­tended abor­tion clin­ics in Eng­land and Wales gave ad­dresses in Ire­land.

For med­i­cal re­searchers, the ex­pected surge in foetal ma­te­rial rep­re­sents a source of patho­log­i­cal bounty. But is it right to use foetal tis­sue that would oth­er­wise be de­stroyed?

In the 1980s, work­ing in a hospi­tal di­ag­nos­tic vi­rol­ogy lab, I helped to dis­sect a legally aborted foe­tus. Blood tests con­firmed the mother had con­tracted rubella virus in­fec­tion in early preg­nancy. The aim of the dis­sec­tion was to re­move tis­sue from cer­tain spec­i­fied or­gans and at­tempt to iso­late rubella virus. Af­ter pro­cess­ing, the aborted foe­tus was de­stroyed ac­cord­ing to lab­o­ra­tory pro­to­col.

Rubella virus, at that time, was dif­fi­cult to grow in cell cul­ture, and we failed to iso­late it. But what if that foe­tus had fa­cil­i­tated a mi­nor ad­vance or even a ma­jor dis­cov­ery that con­ferred last­ing ben­e­fit on mankind? Would it have been im­moral?

Pi­o­neer of cell cul­ture

Con­sider the case of Prof Leonard Hayflick of the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, San Fran­cisco, who cel­e­brated his 90th birth­day last May. A pi­o­neer of cell cul­ture, Hayflick en­tered the field in the 1950s as a young re­searcher at the Wis­tar In­sti­tute in Philadel­phia, a decade that has been called the golden age of vi­rol­ogy.

Hayflick’s lab­o­ra­tory was close to the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia Hospi­tal, where, in 1958, his wife gave birth to their third child. Hav­ing ar­ranged with the ob­ste­tri­cian to ob­tain the pla­centa and am­nion, Hayflick re­turned to the lab and set up his cul­tures. Af­ter sev­eral weeks, he ob­served that these nor­mal am­nion cells had con­verted to an im­mor­tal cell pop­u­la­tion. He named the cell line Wish (Wis­tar In­sti­tute Su­san Hayflick), and it proved to be a pop­u­lar re­search tool.

Four years later, Hayflick made a fur­ther and more sig­nif­i­cant sci­en­tific ad­vance. In 1962, fol­low­ing a le­gal abor­tion at a Swedish hospi­tal, the lungs from a fe­male foe­tus were flown from Stock­holm to Hayflick’s lab­o­ra­tory. From these, he es­tab­lished the WI-38 cell strain of the first “nor­mal” hu­man cells to pro­vide li­censed hu­man virus vac­cines against po­liomyeli­tis, measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, shin­gles, ade­n­ovirus, ra­bies and hep­ati­tis A.

Hayflick’s work co­in­cided with the find­ing that mon­key kid­ney cells, then used to man­u­fac­ture po­liomyeli­tis vac­cines, were con­tam­i­nated with simian viruses and thus his WI-38s were a timely al­ter­na­tive. WI-38s are de­rived from a sin­gle donor; free from con­tam­i­nat­ing viruses; can be frozen in­def­i­nitely; and can be safety-tested be­fore use in large-scale vac­cine pro­duc­tion.

Last year, Hayflick co-au­thored a re­port with Prof Stu­art Ol­shan­sky which es­ti­mated that, glob­ally, the num­ber of cases treated or averted with WI-38-re­lated vac­cines, and the num­ber of deaths averted were 4.5 bil­lion and 10.3 mil­lion, re­spec­tively.

Col­lud­ing with evil

Yet, (the then) Bishop Elio Sgrec­cia, emer­i­tus pres­i­dent of the Pon­tif­i­cal Academy for Life, was unim­pressed when he de­scribed Hayflick’s achieve­ments as “evil”. Thus, in a let­ter from the Vat­i­can, dated June 9th, 2005, to the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of an or­gan­i­sa­tion called Chil­dren of God for Life, Sgrec­cia scolded par­ents who per­mit­ted aborted tis­sue-de­rived vac­cines to be used on their chil­dren, say­ing that such be­hav­iour amounted to col­lud­ing with evil: “Would it not be a mat­ter of true (and il­licit) co­op­er­a­tion in evil, even though this evil was car­ried out 40 years ago?” Sgrec­cia listed three cat­e­gories of evil­do­ers: “a) those who pre­pare the vac­cines us­ing hu­man cell lines com­ing from vol­un­tary abor­tions; b) those who par­tic­i­pate in the mass mar­ket­ing of such vac­cines; c) those who need to use them for health rea­sons.”

Hayflick and Ol­shan­sky de­tect an irony: de­spite the ap­par­ent pall of evil en­shroud­ing it, “the rubella vac­cine (which is pro­duced in the WI-38 cell strain that orig­i­nated from an aborted hu­man foe­tus) is vig­or­ously op­posed by anti-choice ad­vo­cates, even though this vac­cine pre­vented over 633,000 mis­car­riages in the US alone, and count­less more across the globe, and it has pre­vented tens of mil­lions of clin­i­cal health is­sues in chil­dren (eg, en­cephali­tis, autism, deaf­ness, di­a­betes, etc) linked to con­gen­i­tal rubella syn­drome.”

Any hope that (the now) Car­di­nal Sgrec­cia and his fol­low­ers might con­cede that WI-38-de­rived vac­cines are a pub­lic health suc­cess story re­mains for­lorn if their views are based on dogma rather than rea­son. Af­ter all, it’s dif­fi­cult to ma­noeu­vre one’s way out of a po­si­tion that has been shaped by dogma rather than rea­son.

Hayflick and Ol­shan­sky note that when the for­mer’s WI-38 re­search was un­der­taken in 1962, fed­eral funds were avail­able to study tis­sue de­rived from aborted hu­man foe­tuses. How­ever, that fund­ing was with­drawn un­der sev­eral sub­se­quent ad­min­is­tra­tions: “If that pro­hi­bi­tion had been in ef­fect in 1962, it is un­likely that in the sub­se­quent 55 years, there would be bil­lions of peo­ple who ben­e­fit­ted from virus vac­cines pro­duced in WI-38.”

I con­cur with Prof R Alta Charo, who wrote in the New Eng­land Jour­nal of Medicine in 2015: “We have a duty to use foetal tis­sue for re­search and ther­apy.”

But, mean­while, it is a wor­thy topic of se­ri­ous de­bate.

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