Science doesn’t need abortion
A federal advisory board meets as the stakes rise due to the pandemic
As countries and companies around the world race to find a COVID-19 vaccine, many pro-life advocates have expressed concern about the use of tissue from aborted babies in the process. Despite pressure to capitalize on fetal tissue to bring a swifter end to the pandemic, ongoing research into the coronavirus continues to find other methods that are more ethical and just as effective.
The Trump administration’s new advisory board on the ethics of using fetal tissue in research met for the first time on July 31 under the shadow of the pandemic and with an urgent need to sort out ethical research practices. Two-thirds of those on the 15-member panel are pro-life and against funding research that uses tissue obtained from the victims of elective abortions. Paige Comstock Cunningham, an attorney and former executive director of The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity, leads the panel, which also includes David A. Prentice, vice president of the pro-life Charlotte Lozier Institute and a well-known supporter of using alternatives to human embryonic stem cell research.
More than 90 medical associations, universities, and scientific organizations on July 28 sent a letter to the panel citing the need to speed up research on COVID-19: “Fetal tissue research has the potential to accelerate the end to the pandemic, reduce human suffering, and enable the U.S. to better respond to future public health threats.”
Stanford University scientist Irving Weissman claimed the Trump administrations’ block on funding fetal cell research has shut down studies into coronavirus vaccines and treatments that used mice grafted with human fetal lung cells. “They are withholding therapies for the rest of us, including their own families,” he told BuzzFeed News.
But Tara Sander Lee, a Charlotte Lozier associate scholar, told a U.S. House of Representative subcommittee more than a year ago that there are other options. Researchers can easily generate humanized mice using surplus human thymus tissue, which doctors can obtain during surgical procedures to repair congenital heart defects in newborns. She noted that researchers can obtain “more than 1,000 fragments” of tissue from a single thymus.
Several companies developing potential COVID-19 vaccines have done so without fetal cells, according to an ethics assessment the Charlotte Lozier Institute conducted. Two of those programs—led by Moderna and a cooperative effort among BioNTech, Fosun Pharma, and Pfizer—have already launched Phase 3 clinical trials. Some people raised concerns that Moderna and another company, Inovio, used a fetal cell line that originated from a baby aborted decades ago to study the proteins the vaccines produced and the antibody reactions they created. But Nicole Stacy of Charlotte Lozier said the organization considers them ethical because “no fetal cells, in fact, no cells at all were used in design or production of either vaccine.”
Many ethical alternatives make research on tissue derived from aborted babies unnecessary, Prentice said. Researchers can harvest stem cells from placentas, amniotic fluid, and umbilical cords. They can also modify adult stem cells so they act like embryonic stem cells. And scientists can obtain fetal tissue from spontaneous miscarriages and ectopic pregnancies.
Legos aren’t just for kids. Medical researchers have used 3D-printed, flea-sized, Lego-inspired bricks to repair bone and soft tissue. The technique might one day lead to lab-made organs for transplants in humans, scientists associated with the project said.
According to the study, published in Advanced Materials on July 23, the small, hollow bricks can serve as scaffolding for the growth of hard or soft tissue.
“Our patent-pending scaffolding is easy to use; it can be stacked together like Legos and placed in thousands of different configurations to match the complexity and size of almost any situation,” said lead researcher Luiz Bertassoni.
Orthopedic surgeons repair complex bone fractures by implanting metal rods or plates and inserting materials packed with powders or pastes to promote healing. But doctors could fill the hollow bricks of the new scaffolding structure with gels containing specific growth factors placed closest to where they are needed to speed recovery.
“The 3D-printed microcage technology improves healing by stimulating the right type of cells to grow in the right place, and at the right time,” researcher Ramesh Subbiah said. In a study on rats, the use of blocks filled with growth factor resulted in about three times more blood vessel growth than conventional repair methods.
Doctors can assemble the bricks to fit almost any space. The researchers said doctors could use the technology for spinal fusion surgeries, to heal bones cut out as cancer treatment, and to build up weakened jawbones before a dental implant. —J.B.
The use of 3D printing also has helped researchers at the University of Minnesota create a functioning miniature human heart in the lab. The organ measures less than half an inch across, about the size of a mouse heart. Scientists could use the lab-grown human heart muscle to test the effectiveness or toxicity of drugs and to study heart diseases and injuries.
Until now, scientists could not grow functioning heart muscle in a lab dish because adult heart muscle cells don’t proliferate well enough to eventually produce and sustain pumping action. In the study, published in Circulation Research last month, instead of 3D printing adult heart muscle cells, the researchers printed 3D induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC), which multiply quickly. Scientists derive these cells from human skin or blood and reprogram them to act like embryonic stem cells, which can become nearly any cell type in the body. The researchers let these iPSCs multiply before they differentiated them into heart muscle cells. Within a month, the cells organized and began to beat together like a human heart.
“I couldn’t believe it when we looked at the dish in the lab and saw the whole thing contracting spontaneously and synchronously and able to move fluid,” lead researcher Brenda Ogle said. —J.B.
Scientists are developing a blood test that may detect cancer years before any symptoms appear. In a clinical trial, the test found one of five different forms of cancer in 575 otherwise healthy subjects. Ninety-one percent of those test subjects developed cancer symptoms within one to four years.
“We can’t say for sure that the patients didn’t have any symptoms, but we detected the cancer years before they ever walked into the hospital,” Kun Zhang, one of the lead researchers, told Medscape.
The scientists also followed subjects whose tests did not detect any cancer, and they remained cancer-free during the same time period.
The blood test used in the 10-year longitudinal study, published in Nature on July 21, is the first to detect the disease years before individuals experience any signs or symptoms. But it can only detect the presence of cancer—it cannot identify the site. —J.B.
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