The use of fetal cell lines in research, especially in vaccine development, has caused a lot of controversy in the media and surprisingly in some parts of the scientific community as well. Pro-life activists accuse scientists of performing abortions in order to produce life-saving jabs. Their ridiculous objections stop people, especially those more susceptible to manipulation or members of religious organisations, from vaccinating their children; we all know how dangerous that is. It is therefore necessary to abolish all the harmful myths surrounding this issue and explain what abortion has to do with drug development.
(Undifferentiated embryonic stem cells. Source: PLoS)
Many arguments of the anti-vaccination movement refer to their association with abortion. It is true that during the production of the majority of currently available jabs, the viruses used are grown on human cells of embryonic descent. It does not mean however, that pregnancies are terminated solely for medical purposes. Multiple abortions are performed every day, meaning there is a lot of fetal tissue available. It seems like such a waste to simply discard when it can be used for research that might save people’s lives.
The vast benefits that come from the use of fetal cell lines are reflected in the influence of vaccinations on the health of the human population. Before the 1960s, viruses for vaccine production were grown and attenuated (weakened) within animal cells. This was an efficient, but rather costly and not entirely safe process. Human viruses are not the same as those of animals. That means that their growth in animal cells can differ from that observed in humans. In addition, animals themselves require a lot of maintenance and constant health check-ups to ensure that the vaccine would not be contaminated. These concerns made scientists turn to human cells as a medium for viral growth. The first human cell strain used in vaccine production was named WI-38. The cells had been obtained from the lung tissue of an aborted foetus. Interestingly, the pregnancy had been prematurely terminated because of the high risk of congenital rubella syndrome (CRS). Rubella, a disease that is no longer a threat in the modern world, in the past caused a significant number of miscarriages and serious defects in children, with deafness and mental retardation being only a few examples. The use of this particular cell line contributed to the elimination of this disease, and therefore prevented the miscarriages and defects associated.
A few years later, the same procedure was repeated. More lung tissue was obtained from a legal abortion. The new cell line was called MCR-5. These two cell lines have been used in the production of vaccines for rubella, measles and mumps (the triple vaccine called MMR), polio, rabies, varicella-zoster and hepatitis A. Widespread delivery of those vaccines has eradicated their respective diseases. Nowadays, fetal cell lines are used in other areas of research such as degenerative diseases, eyesight loss, AIDS and cancer. Scientists can use the cell lines to run clinical trials, reducing the involvement of human subjects in the testing.
Why do we have to use fetal rather than any other human cells you may ask? It is because of the so-called Hayflick limit, a phenomenon named after its discoverer. While working on cell reproduction he noticed that after some time all human cells first slow down and then completely stop their division. It is not the case with fetal cells as they are able to replicate indefinitely if stored properly. In fact, cell lines WI-38 and MCR-5 have been used ever since the 1960s. This is a tremendous advantage and the main reason why they are used. They also have other valuable properties such as fast division and easy adjustment to new environments.
As the use of fetal cell lines is a rather old process, developed over 50 years ago, some may wonder if any alternatives for this method exist. Indeed, recent studies on stem cells have led to the discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells. Adult human cells are transformed into indefinitely reproducing stem cells, able to produce any kind of tissue. No embryos are used during this process. This Nobel Prize awarded discovery brings abounding opportunities, replacing fetal cell lines being one of them. However, the procedure itself does have many limitations, some of them rather significant, such as low efficiency and risk of tumour development. It still cannot be used on a larger scale and does not have to be when easily available fetal cell lines exist.
The benefits that fetal cell lines bring to research and the well-being of the human population are obvious. Despite that, some conservative groups call for the abolishment of their use. They put the fate of aborted fetuses over the health and lives of billions of human beings. Even the former Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged that the benefits of vaccinations outweigh the fact that they were produced, according to some, in a morally wrong manner. The words and actions of pro-life activists will not stop abortions, but severely influences people’s views on vaccination and decreases the pace of drug development for many, currently incurable diseases. For me, it is clear that the use of fetal cell lines in research should continue as it is purely beneficial and does no harm to anyone.