Why We Don’t Need Fetal Cells to Conduct Life-Saving Research

In the wake of the recent undercover video released by the Center for Medical Progress, which has exposed Planned Parenthood’s harvesting of fetal parts for the purpose of research, microbiologist Nathalia Holt wrote “The Case for Fetal-Cell Research,” published last week in the New York Times. In the essay, Holt clearly expresses her uneasiness about harvesting organs from aborted fetuses. And unlike Dr. Deborah Nucatola, Planned Parenthood’s senior director of medical services, Holt openly acknowledges that harvesting human fetal organs is part of widespread and lucrative business. “There are profits to be made by such middlemen in what critics call the abortion industry,” she says. “A fetus runs upward of $850, not including testing, cleaning, or shipping charges, while a vial packed with pure stem cells can fetch more than $20,000.”

To justify the unsavory practice of utilizing human bodies for valuable parts that are otherwise “bound for the trash,” she puts forward two arguments: 1) there is a “need” for human body parts (fetal stem cells, in particular), and 2) human body parts save lives. Yet both of these statements, as well as the assumption underlying them, are false.

First, we are all eventually “bound for the trash” (or the grave or the crematorium), and yet this does not justify trading in human organs after death. The transfer of organs is a federal crime, actually, “if the transfer affects interstate commerce.”

Moreover, despite Holt’s repeated justification that fetal stem cells are harvested only in order to “meet the need” for “precursor cells,” there is a difference between a “need” and a market. People want and will pay good money for cigarettes, hallucinogenic drugs, salty, fat-laden snacks, and sappy romance novels — all things that they don’t “need” and that might, in fact, be harmful to them. Supplying such products cannot be ennobled by the pretense that they satisfy a basic “need” such as food or clean water. It is merely supplying a demand. It is capitalism, plain and simple.

Holt’s main thesis is this: “Science, performed on discarded tissue, has the ability to save lives. It already has.” To justify this conclusion, she marshals two lines of evidence. She correctly notes that “progress is being made in the use of stem-cell therapies against cancer, blindness, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, H.I.V., and diabetes.” Yet she fails to note that the vast majority of this progress relies not on fetal tissue but on the use of stem cells that are isolated from birth-related material and/or adult tissue.

A search of the NIH-administered database of clinical trials for the terms “fetal stem cell” returns only 21 currently funded human trials (only two of which actually involve transplantation of fetal stem cells), compared with 5,072 trials using non-fetal cells. Science has indeed spoken — but not in support of fetal-stem-cell research.

Even more egregiously, Holt asserts:

Fetal cells extracted from the lungs of two aborted fetuses from Europe in the 1960s are still being propagated in cell culture. They’re so successful that today we still use them to produce vaccines for hepatitis A, rubella, chickenpox and shingles. From two terminated pregnancies, countless lives have been spared.

The “fetal cells” Holt is apparently referencing are two cell lines derived from fetal lung tissue: WI-38 (isolated by Leonard Hayflick at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia from a fetus aborted in Stockholm) and MRC-5 (isolated by Jacobs, Jones, and Baille at the National Institute for Medical Research in London). Both have been used extensively in vaccine development and production.

Yet the use of WI-38 and MRC-5 for scientific and medical purposes in no way supports Holt’s conclusion. Although these cells were initially isolated from aborted fetuses, they are categorically not fetal stem cells. Indeed, they are nothing like the cells she describes isolating directly from fetal tissue. WI-38 and MRC-5 are transformed cells lines, and the roles they have played in saving lives have absolutely nothing to do with their fetal origin.

WI-38 and MRC-5 (along with two other fetal-derived cell lines, HEK-293 and IMR-90) are widely used in industry and research because they have been “immortalized,” which means that that they have been artificially transformed so that they divide indefinitely in culture. Immortalizing cells gives them many abnormal traits, allowing researchers to select for cells with useful properties that did not exist in the original fetal tissue. WI-38 and MRC-5 cell lines are useful for vaccine production not because of their fetal origin, but because they were selected for the ability to easily incorporate the “foreign” DNA required to make vaccines.

Researchers in the 1960s and ’70s used fetal cells to produce transformed cell lines because, given the limited knowledge at the time, fetal cells were easier to propagate prior to transformation. Yet in the modern world, fetal cells are not required to produce transformed cell lines. Using current technology, adult cells are readily transformed in a similar manner and have identical properties to fetal-derived cell lines.

Scientists and industry continue to use fetally derived, transformed cell lines today for purely historical reasons: Because these lines have been in use for more than 40 years, we know a great deal about their properties and have built a large number of “improvements” into them, which makes them valuable laboratory tools. And the fact that these man-made cell lines have not been replaced by freshly isolated fetal stem cells argues strongly against Holt’s conclusion that fetal cells “save lives.” Vaccines save lives. And many vaccines are manufactured using highly manipulated, entirely unnatural, “immortalized” cell lines that, as a sad legacy of history, were originally isolated from fetal tissue.

Given that fetal cells are not required for vaccine production and are not used for stem-cell therapies, Holt’s “case for fetal-cell research” amounts to nothing more than unsupported assertion.

Given that fetal cells are not required for life-saving vaccines and manifestly are not used for life-saving therapies, what drives the demand for fetal tissue? Why are researchers willing to pay $20,000 for a vial of fetal stem cells?

Curiosity and hope. Scientists are curious about the unique properties of fetal cells, and they hope that understanding those properties will yield novel approaches to curing human disease. And in fairness, we’ve undoubtedly gained a great deal of useful information from such research. We could gain equally valuable information from experiments on organs taken without consent from death-row prisoners — individuals who are going to die anyway, with their mortal remains “bound for the trash.” Yet we rightly condemn using organs from prisoners without consent as a revolting commodification of human beings, even if the “donors” were legally terminated under the law. And we should condemn research on human fetal body parts for exactly the same reasons.

— Maureen L. Condic is an associate professor of neurobiology and anatomy at the University of Utah School of Medicine; she conducts research on human stem cells.

Originally posted in National Review.

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