Boston: The furor on Capitol Hill over a leading US pro-choice group has stoked a debate about the use of tissue from aborted fetuses in medical research, but US 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, which provides reproductive health as well as contraception and abortion services, 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 USD 280 million in federal grants for fetal tissue research from the National Institutes of Health.
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 US 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.