Why My Cells Matter


Buried amidst candidate town halls, presidential tweets, and memorials to the 75th anniversary of D Day in early June, the Trump Administration began a campaign to derail medical research that led to major health advances, most notably for pregnant women. 

While the world was watching President Trump visit Europe, here at home, the Department of Health and Human Services, through the National Institutes of Health announced it would no longer fund projects involving fetal tissue. Projects, which the NIH website says “have led to improved techniques of in vitro fertilization and embryo transfer and to major advances in the diagnosis and treatment of conditions that threaten the survival of fetuses and pregnant women. 

The use of fetal cells has been controversial for years even as research using those cells has led to medical and scientific advances. An uneasy truce was declared. President Bush limited federal funding, but continued it. President Obama lifted those restrictions and strengthened funding. Stringent guidelines and procedures have been developed. Stem cell research has helped us understand how diseases occur, test drug effectiveness and safety for human use, and seek preventions for chronic health problems. And, interestingly enough, in both 2007 and 2012, Nobel Prizes were given for stem cell research. 

This new policy could end all that. Medical researchers were warned last fall that a change might occur and took action to educate Congress about the need to continue this research. A letter sent in September 2018 signed by the American Pediatric Association, the Association for the Advancement of Science, Harvard University, Massachusetts General Hospital and 60 other medical organizations, hospitals, and universities urging Congress not to limit the use of fetal tissue reads in part, “Fetal tissue research has been critical for scientific and medical advances that have saved the lives of millions of people; including the development of vaccines against polio, rubella, measles, chickenpox, adenovirus, rabies; and treatments for debilitating diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, cystic fibrosis, and hemophilia.” 

Congress hasn’t acted yet, but NIH, the agency it oversees, last week warned the University of California that its current small research contract was in jeopardy. The two million dollar contact, usually renewed annually, had only 90 days left, and was unlikely to be renewed.  The issue isn’t about money. The NIH spends $100 million of its $37 billion dollar budget on research involving fetal tissue which is an incredibly small amount considering the overall budget.  

Let’s stop for a minute to revisit high school biology.  Human tissue consists of many cells. A cell is the basic unit of life. A cell unlocks who we are. It’s our genetic code – color of skin, sex, and eye color, risk of heart disease, cancer…and so on. Human tissue used in research has two sources, an adult or a fetus. Women having an elective abortion give consent for the fetal tissue to used in medical research. Recent laws limiting women’s access to abortion are likely to impact this research and could prevent or delay treatments for many diseases.

Both types of tissues have helped create vaccines and drugs to save and extend lives. Both helped create procedures and knowledge for treatments for chronic health conditions. Adult cells are not as versatile, cannot be manipulated in the same ways, and are likely to contain abnormalities that fetus cells do not have which makes fetal cells distinct. The research community is seeking alternatives and NIH is funding some of that research, but no current alternatives to fetal tissue are available. 

It isn’t about the lives saved. It is an ethical issue. It is a values issue. It is a womens’ issue. 

Only women produce fetal tissue. Only fetal tissue can be used for specific research. Many of the recipients of the emerging medical successes from using fetal tissue are women — pregnant women, HIV positive women, women with ALS, Parkinson’s, cancer, cystic fibrosis, diabetes, and heart disease. 

This is another who are we issue. We live in a democracy in which we have the right to participate in decision making through our elected representatives, through our own advocacy and community action.  

So, what do we want?

Do we want to continue to explore life-saving techniques? Do we want to limit our knowledge and treatments for many medical diseases? Do we want to raise our voices in this issue that affects so many women?

I do. And I hope you’ll join me. 

I’m no longer in my reproductive years. It won’t be my fetal tissue used for medical research. While I am encouraged by ongoing research into developing alternative methodologies using adult cells, today, what works is fetal tissue. The potential medical advances from fetal tissue research outweigh this political decision to its limit funding.

We need to ask the National Institutes of Health to continue funding fetal tissue research and to support women and their families relying on this research to develop new treatments.

Kate M. Carey lives and writes in Lexington, NC while counting the days until she can retire to the beach.

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