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On beyond fetal cells?

Despite the widespread scientific use of fetal cell lines linked to abortions, pro-lifers hope for alternatives

A researcher transfers medium to cells at Imperial College in London as the school’s laboratory works to develop a COVID-19 vaccine in July 2020. Associated Press/Photo by Kirsty Wigglesworth (file)

On beyond fetal cells?

Thousands of Americans are requesting religious exemptions to COVID-19 vaccine mandates by private employers and public institutions. Many cite the vaccines’ link to cell lines taken from aborted babies: Abortion-linked fetal cell lines, cultured by scientists and sold for research purposes, are used in the production of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and were also used in the testing phase for the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines.

Some with moral objections to vaccines connected to abortion would like an alternative. But replacing cell lines that have been in existence for decades presents technical and practical challenges, especially since they are already entrenched in medical research.

Vaccines against hepatitis A, rubella, chicken pox, shingles, rabies, and adenoviruses were created using either MRC-5 cells, taken from a baby boy aborted in 1966, or WI-38 cells, taken from a baby girl aborted in 1962. A multitude of over-the-counter drugs, including Tylenol and Tums, also used abortion-linked cell lines during research and development. Prescription medications, too, such as Enbrel for rheumatoid arthritis and Pulmozyme for cystic fibrosis, are linked to fetal tissue studies.

Immortalized” fetal cell lines can, due to mutation, replicate indefinitely. In comparison with normal cells that have a finite lifespan, immortalized cells tend to have the properties of cancer cells. This presents a major disadvantage because these mutations can lead to expression of gene patterns not present in normal cells. Fetal cell lines can become less useful over time, requiring development of new ones. For example, Walvax-2, derived from a baby aborted at 3 months of gestation, was developed a few years ago potentially to replace MRC-5.

The ubiquity of aborted fetal cell lines in research labs makes it difficult to avoid them, according to David Prentice, vice president and research director for the Charlotte Lozier Institute. “I don’t think many researchers even realize the connection to abortion,” he said. “I’ve had pro-life colleagues who started experiments with some of those cells and then did a check and were horrified to see that those cells were from abortion.”

Fetal tissue donated from a miscarried baby does not present the same ethical dilemma as that taken from abortions, but researchers point to quality problems. “Immediately you get the argument, ‘Well that tissue is abnormal, that’s why it miscarried,’” explained Prentice.

He believes shifting entirely from the use of historic or fresh abortion-linked cells would require a “one-size-fits-all” alternative cell line. No existing cell line meets all medical research needs. Chinese hamster ovary cells are the gold standard for protein and antibody manufacturing but are not good viral carriers. HEK-293 cells are excellent viral carriers, making them a useful tool in gene therapy, but have poor growth and protein production efficiency. Prentice hopes an innovative research lab will design an alternative cell line that can outperform fetal cells.

Alternatives to abortion-linked fetal cells already exist. In fact, scientists have designed many vaccines without the use of fetal cell lines. A vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella developed using egg and rabbit cells exists in Japan. The rVSV-ZEBOV vaccine against Ebola uses Vero, a monkey cell line. Pharmaceutical giant Sanofi Pasteur recently discontinued use of MRC-5 fetal cells in its polio vaccine, also replacing them with Vero cells. India’s Covaxin vaccine against COVID-19 has no connection to aborted fetal stem cells: All testing and production relied on Vero cells.

Some scientists argue fetal tissue will always be critical to medical research, particularly in studying fetal development. But pro-life researchers aren’t convinced. Maureen Condic, an associate professor of neurobiology at the University of Utah School of Medicine, contended in an article for National Review that abortion-linked fetal cells have been widely used in medical research not because of their historical fetal origin, but rather because of their transformation into cells that can divide indefinitely. Scientists no longer need to rely on fetal cells to generate transformed cell lines, she argued, because technological advancements allow them to endow adult stem cells with the same properties as fetal-derived ones.

Although federal funding of research using fresh aborted fetal tissue was banned during the Reagan and Trump administrations, there has never been a federal mandate against the use of existing cell lines generated from abortions. State-level restrictions on fetal tissue research vary. Indiana, for example, prohibits all research on tissue derived from aborted babies, while New Jersey places no restrictions on this type of research. But the use of abortion-linked fetal cells remains a gray area. Prentice thinks states have only tackled fetal tissue use because it presents the more immediate problem of ongoing abortions.

Prentice doesn’t think taking a pro-life stance would result in a big financial hit to pharmaceutical companies: “Just denouncing in public and moving away from any connection with [abortion-linked] cell lines, they would gain not just goodwill, but a lot of business.”

Heather Frank

Heather is a science correspondent for WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, the University of Maryland, and Carnegie Mellon University. She has worked in both food and chemical product development, and currently works as a research chemist. Heather resides with her family in Pittsburgh, Pa.

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