For sale, human fetal stem cells: $200. Long used in medical research, such cells are at the center of controversy once more after a hidden camera video purportedly showed a Planned Parenthood doctor talking about the sale of fetal body parts.
The video was misleading, Planned Parenthood said in a statement, and the doctor was talking "about standard reimbursement fees for costs associated with tissue donation programs."
Still, scientists who have worked with fetal tissues told BuzzFeed News that they are uncomfortable with the seemingly callous tone of the doctor in the heavily edited video.
"I'm appalled that she didn't seem more sensitive," stem cell researcher Jeanne Loring at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, told BuzzFeed News. It could be, she added, that important context was cut out of the video. Still, based on the edited version, it seems that "she didn't have respect for the donors."
But these scientists argue that research with fetal tissues is conducted ethically, with payments simply covering the cost of handling and shipping the samples. Each abortion involves a wrenching decision for the woman concerned, Evan Snyder of the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute, also in La Jolla, told BuzzFeed News.
But once that decision is made, he said, "there are opportunities to use the tissue, so that somebody may be able to benefit from it."
Snyder was the first researcher to isolate human neural stem cells, which can develop into cells that may one day be used to help fix damaged brains. And he extracted those cells from fetal tissue.
"It's anguishing for everybody. But it's not unethical and there are rules around it," Snyder said.
Indeed, cells taken from aborted human fetuses have been used by medical researchers for more than five decades to create vaccines for everything from polio to measles, and to study ailments ranging from cancer to blindness.
They have also been used for transplant medicine — for example, to provide new insulin-producing cells to people with diabetes.
In 1961, Leonard Hayflick, a researcher at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, discovered that human fetal cells will divide about 50 times when placed in nutrients in a lab dish, even after freezing, making possible the generation of long-lived colonies of cells for research into diseases involving all types of organs.
Before that, most of the cells used in research came from cancers or other abnormal tissues. So fetal tissue made the study of normal, human healthy cells finally possible.
The catch was that these fetal cells came from aborted fetuses.
"Cells from one fetus have no doubt saved the lives of millions of people," Paul Offit of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia told the journal Nature in 2013, talking about just one cell line used by Hayflick to create vaccines. That WI-38 cell strain came from a female fetus from Sweden, aborted at 20 weeks of gestation.
The first criticisms of fetal cell research came in the early 1970s, around the same time that Roe v. Wade legalized U.S. abortions and researchers first began transplanting fetal cells into the brains of Parkinson's patients.
That line of research continues today: Last year, Harvard researchers announced that transplanted fetal brain cells had lived in a Parkinson's patient's brain for more than a decade.
In 1988, the Reagan administration banned the use of federal funds to support research using fetal cells. That moratorium ended in 1993 with a compromise bill that allowed women to donate tissues from aborted fetuses to medical research — but only if no payment was involved and they did not know the identity of anyone receiving the tissues in a transplant.
"It shall be unlawful for any person to knowingly acquire, receive, or otherwise transfer any human fetal tissue for valuable consideration," says the federal law. But the law does allow for reasonable compensation of costs involved in transferring cells to tissue banks, and these tissue banks, in turn, sell the cells to researchers.
The tissue bank company StemExpress of Placerville, California, mentioned in the hidden camera video, has not yet released a statement but told BuzzFeed News that one is forthcoming. Researchers have used cells from the tissue bank to research blindness and diabetes, for example.
At ATCC of Manassas, Virginia, the most eminent tissue bank, costs for human fetal cells range from about $200 to $550. ATCC did not respond to requests for comment from BuzzFeed News.
"As requirements for procurement of human biospecimens have changed through the years, ATCC's policies also have evolved to ensure that these standards are met," according to a statement on the company's website. "We continue to uphold and improve on these standards to ensure the integrity of our activities and the materials that are entrusted to us."
Despite all the attention on fetal cells, they are becoming less popular in medical research.
In the last decade, the fight over fetal cells was subsumed by a political battle over federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. That issue set the George W. Bush administration against medical researchers using those tissues, gathered from 6-day-old embryos, to study organ transplants.
Excitement over stem cells has largely overtaken fetal tissue, something that didn't come across in the video of a Planned Parenthood doctor discussing tissue extraction over a salad.
"Fetal cells are not a big deal in science anymore," bioethicist Art Caplan of New York University told BuzzFeed News. "What happened is stem cell tech then came on board, and gene therapy — there's just other techniques now. "
Some scientists disagree, pointing out that fetal cells remain useful for medical research. "I understand why people would want tissues like this," Loring said.
Fetal liver cells, she suggests, might play a role in toxicology studies conducted by pharmaceutical firms testing the safety of new drugs. And stem cell researchers may want cells from fetuses to compare with the tissues they are trying to grow.
Still, she said that fetal cells can be obtained through nonprofit sources.
"I have fetal tissue in my gene expression bank, but it was obtained locally [through an obstetrician]," she said. "We made sure that the informed consent was in place."
Dan Vergano is a science reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
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