Health & Medicine

Undercover video turns lens on fetal tissue research

A screenshot from a secretly recorded video released by the Center for Medical Progress shows Deborah Nucatola, a doctor and Planned Parenthood’s senior director of medical services, during a discussion about procuring tissue from aborted fetuses for research.
A screenshot from a secretly recorded video released by the Center for Medical Progress shows Deborah Nucatola, a doctor and Planned Parenthood’s senior director of medical services, during a discussion about procuring tissue from aborted fetuses for research. Center for Medical Progress

In an undercover recording released earlier this month, a Planned Parenthood executive was caught discussing the procurement of organs from aborted fetuses between bites of salad at a lunch meeting. The abortion opponents who published the footage say the practice is inhumane. Scientists say it’s the key to groundbreaking medical research.

Tissue collected from unborn fetuses contains stem cells that can divide and produce copies of themselves. Those cells can then be used to replace damaged tissue and organs, and to treat many conditions including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, burns and diabetes.

The recent attacks on Planned Parenthood have highlighted the “ic” factor of procuring and delivering fetal materials, causing many to question the morality of the practice. But in the medical community, few would argue against their curative potential. A growing body of studies over the last two decades, has made stem cells, particularly those from fetal tissue, an appealing resource for researchers and pharmaceutical companies alike.

“It’s incredibly important and valuable research that can help newborns, and help us more generally understand how tissues and cell types work,” said David Magnus, director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at Stanford University.

Fetal tissue research was legalized in the early 1990s, even before approval came for embryonic stem cell research – the use of cells from embryos collected during in vitro fertilization. In 2014, the National Institutes of Health dedicated $76 million to studies utilizing fetal tissue and organs, which are largely procured during abortions.

In Northern California, academic research involving fetal tissue takes place largely at Stanford University and at the University of California, San Francisco.

A 2011 UCSF study showed that fetal tissue can help induce insulin-producing beta cells to mature and expand – a discovery that may lead to new ways of treating diabetes. Mice whose pancreases were injected with the fetal tissue produced more beta cells, and hence more insulin, than mice in the control group. Using fetal cells, researchers may someday be able to create more beta cells in the body or in a test tube, the study posed.

Implanting fetal neural tissue into the brains of adults with Parkinson’s disease has been shown to improve their motor skills. A 2006 study of patients with Huntington’s disease, another neurodegenerative condition, found that a similar technique resulted in more years without symptoms for subjects.

Medical researchers have also found the tissue particularly helpful in developing interventions for prenatal conditions. When a fetus is aborted due to a severe medical condition, for example, studying the fetal cells can help researchers better understand the effects of the illness on the fetus.

Drug manufacturers sometimes acquire fetal organs to test which medications can be prescribed to pregnant women without causing harm to the organs of the developing fetus, particularly the liver, Magnus said.

“Regardless of your views about abortion, once the decision has been made or the miscarriage has happened, there’s something good that can come out of it,” he said.

Jan Nolta, director of the Stem Cell Program at the UC Davis School of Medicine, said that though their research is conducted using adult stem cells and cells taken from the baby’s umbilical cord rather than fetal tissue, studying and comparing different types of stem cells can be beneficial.

“Scientists try to understand development, and how one single fertilized stem cell can become a whole organ or replacement tissues,” she said. “The fetal tissues are somewhere in that spectrum along the way.”

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