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Should Fetal Tissue be Used in Human Research?

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Dec 17, 2018
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Should Fetal Tissue be Used in Human Research?

The field of bioethics and medicine have been debating research practices, specifically related to fetal tissue, for decades.  The use of fetal tissue for research purposes began in the 1930s and started to receive federal funding in the 1950s.  Fetal tissue is acquired from elective abortions which is one of the main reasons it is controversial. Last week, there was a meeting involving two House of Representatives’ committees to discuss research with “humanized mice.”  These mice “possess human cells, DNA tissues or immune systems” and break down into two types: those that require fetal tissues and those that do not require it.  This idea is the crux of last Thursday’s discussion.

Those who oppose the inclusion of fetal tissue in research are often against abortion, or pro-life.  They believe in the sacredness of human life and that, in a Kantian sense, humans should not be treated as means to an end, rather they are an end in themselves.  Some scientists are also opposed to the use of fetal tissue in research.  Dr. Tara Sander Lee, a biologist at both the Charlotte Lozier Institute and Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center, believes that there are alternatives to fetal tissue (i.e. donated human tissues, bone marrow, and stem cells).  As technology advances, she supports the other options that are being made available and should be utilized. 

Supporters of fetal tissue research posit that since it acquired federal funding in the 1950s, there is an “extensive regulatory framework” with a “long history of support from both sides of the aisle.”  This quote was from Judy Chu, a Californian representative who is a Democrat.  The House committee discussed the medical advances from using fetal tissue in research as seen in research on HIV.  In response to Dr. Sander Lee (in the previous paragraph), Dr. Sally Temple, former president and current board member of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, rebuts Dr. Lee’s statement to say, “the alternatives mentioned may be useful at times but cannot fully replace fetal tissue” due to its “unique properties.”  Thus, individuals like Dr. Temple argue that federal funding should continue to support research using fetal tissue because it is necessary to improve medical advances. 

Matt Brown, a scientist who is in the process of creating a different type of humanized mouse model that does not need fetal tissue, was part of this discussion.  He recognizes that his new invention is still in the works and may be beneficial in some types of research whereas others could benefit from the current mice with fetal tissue.  He understands both sides of the debate: “It’s a very nuanced discussion.  If they go ahead and ban this – you know black and white, let’s ban it all – there will be so many unintended side effects. They could do so much damage if they ban this the wrong way; it could set science back years and hurt patients too.”  While he does see the harm in removing fetal tissue from research, he also believes “scientists should listen to people’s concerns – people feel very strongly about human fetal tissue.  And no scientist wants to use this unless they have to.  Scientists should pursue alternatives when they are available.”  However, he is optimistic for the future and appreciates the “constructive dialogue” that occurred. 

What are your thoughts on the use of human fetal tissue in research?  Is it ethical?  What are the costs and benefits, and do you think that the creation of an alternative that does not use human fetal tissue can be a replacement?

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