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These cells from one fetus have saved the lives of millions of people.
June 28, 2013 5:28 AM   Subscribe

One of the first and eventually most widely available fetal stem cell strains, WI-38 was harvested (in 1962) and has arguably helped save more lives in the ensuing years than any other created by researchers. Vaccines made using WI-38 cells have immunized hundreds of millions of people against rubella, rabies, adenovirus, polio, measles, chickenpox and shingles. WI-38 has helped epidemiologists identify viral culprits in disease outbreaks and understand cellular senescence. They have served as a normal control for disease comparison, and remain a leading tool for probing the secrets of cellular aging and cancer. Nature explores the line's controversial history.

Editorial: More than 50 years after the WI-38 cell line was derived from a fetus, science and society has still to get to grips with the ethical issues of using human tissue in research.
posted by zarq (19 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
There's a pernicious myth going around that "vaccines have cells from aborted babies in them." It is making anti-abortion parents refuse to vaccinate their children, both because they don't want to feel complicit in something they feel as evil, and because of stories about "reactions" to "cells from aborted babies" causing medical problems. One article I read even speculated that this is the "real link between vaccines and autism."

Unless we want to create an army of anti-vaxers, I think we should be very clear when this comes up that none of the cells from the two cell lines which have been used to develop a few (not all!) vaccines remain in the vaccine and that no new abortions are being done to provide material for vaccines.

I also think it's a bad idea, from a public health perspective, to link abortion and vaccines in people's minds at all, because it's so hard for people to keep the story straight.

What I'm saying is, please don't bring this story up when arguing with either your anti-abortion or anti-vax aquaintances. And if they do, please be clear that the abortion was done a long time ago for personal reasons having nothing to do with research, that none of the cells remain in the vaccine, and that no new abortions are being done for the purpose of making vaccines.
posted by OnceUponATime at 5:47 AM on June 28, 2013 [14 favorites]


Too bad they still haven't created a vaccine curing humans of overbearing religious zeal and righteous ignorance.
posted by HyperBlue at 5:48 AM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


For the article to call the history "troubled" and "controversial" is misleading clickbait. Even the Catholic Church has issued statements that they are totally okay with products of WI-38.
posted by entropone at 6:06 AM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


that none of the cells remain in the vaccine, and that no new abortions are being done for the purpose of making vaccines.

What do you think the odds that they're still listening to you at this point are?
posted by DigDoug at 6:09 AM on June 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


Too bad they still haven't created a vaccine curing humans of overbearing religious zeal and righteous ignorance.

Too bad indeed because we could use it on the overbearing zeal and righteous ignorance of people who have forced science to stop using chimpanzees and other lab animals in medical research. Countless human lives have been saved by that sort of research too.

Even the Catholic Church has issued statements that they are totally okay with products of WI-38.

Well if you click on the linkbait, you would see that it's a bit more nuanced than that:

"Vinnedge wrote to the Vatican asking for an official position on whether Catholics could ethically receive vaccines made using cells from aborted fetuses. She waited two years for an answer. The letter, when it came, concluded that where no alternative exists, it is “lawful” for parents to have their children immunized with vaccines made using WI-38 and MRC-5, to avoid serious risk to their own offspring and to the population as a whole."
posted by three blind mice at 6:16 AM on June 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


Too bad they still haven't created a vaccine curing humans of overbearing religious zeal and righteous ignorance.

We have a few vaccines that work well as tests for detecting the condition. Now we can work on a remedy.
posted by charlie don't surf at 6:17 AM on June 28, 2013


For the article to call the history "troubled" and "controversial" is misleading clickbait. Even the Catholic Church has issued statements that they are totally okay with products of WI-38.

Among the issues raised in some depth in this post's two links are whether scientists and researchers should be able to profit from their discoveries, and whether the family of the aborted child should share in the millions of dollars reaped from the subsequent financial windfall. The question of ethical consent is raised in link #1 and discussed in link #2.
posted by zarq at 6:28 AM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


Fine, I fired from the hip and I'll go get another cup of coffee. Yes, there are some other issues in play - I saw "controversy" next to "vaccines made outta abortions!" and thought that was misleading.
posted by entropone at 6:35 AM on June 28, 2013


No worries. I deliberately kept the words "abortion" and "aborted" out of the post for the same reason. "Fetal" was enough of a red flag, you know?
posted by zarq at 6:41 AM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm fine with abortions being linked to vaccines in people's minds because we need research and treatments that'll more seriously piss off pro-lifers. "Anti-abortion parents [refusing] to vaccinate their children" just helps discredit their movement.
posted by jeffburdges at 6:44 AM on June 28, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Anti-abortion parents [refusing] to vaccinate their children" just helps discredit their movement.

It doesn't just do that, sadly.
posted by Riki tiki at 6:51 AM on June 28, 2013 [2 favorites]


Sadly? Seems like something to encourage.
posted by Renoroc at 7:00 AM on June 28, 2013


MacLean's: The ‘lost generation’ of unvaccinated kids. How Andrew Wakefield’s bogus theory spawned a generation at risk.

And from 2011: USA Today: Unvaccinated behind largest U.S. measles outbreak in years.

Outbreaks don't just affect the unvaccinated. They endanger anyone who is immune-compromised.
posted by zarq at 7:02 AM on June 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


They endanger anyone who is immune-compromised.

More properly, they endanger everyone.
posted by fifthrider at 7:49 AM on June 28, 2013 [3 favorites]


Yes, of course. You're absolutely right.
posted by zarq at 7:58 AM on June 28, 2013


"Vinnedge wrote to the Vatican asking for an official position on whether Catholics could ethically receive vaccines made using cells from aborted fetuses. She waited two years for an answer. The letter, when it came, concluded that where no alternative exists, it is “lawful” for parents to have their children immunized with vaccines made using WI-38 and MRC-5, to avoid serious risk to their own offspring and to the population as a whole. Still, the Vatican wrote, faithful Catholics should “employ every lawful means in order to make life difficult for the pharmaceutical industries” that use such cells. "

This is the letter they are reffering to

The cells involved in vaccine creation are used only to amplify the viruses, esstentially, they are used as cellular factories grown at cold temperatures to make viruses selected to succeed in cold conditions, which both makes them harmless to us and still allows them to attempt to infect us provoking immunity. The cold adapted viruses that work so well for some vaccines are purified from cells that made them, killing the cells in the process, in very precice process that removes any trace of them.

From a moral perspective the collection of the cells had no more impact on the fetus than the collection of a liver from someone who died in a motorcycle accident involving a negligent driver would have on them, and using vaccines derived from the cells is no more an endorsement of medically induced abortion than accepting a liver is an endorsement of bad driving. While there are otherwise important questions about how the lung tissue was collected that do not have especially solid answers, it is pretty absolutely clear that the collection had no impact on whether the abortion would proceed or not. At the same time, as Stanley Plotkin notes in the article, these cells and the understanding they've brought have clearly prevented many fold more abortions than all of the pro-life everything combined ever concievably has.

Its a particular shame that they fucked this up so badly as the vatican, with some notable exceptions, is usually so awesome with science and could really have done a lot to nip this shit in the bud.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:34 AM on June 28, 2013 [4 favorites]


Hayflick argues that there are at least four stakeholders with title to WI-38 or any human cell culture: the tissue donors, the scientists whose work gave it value, the scientists' institution and the body that funded the work. “Like me”, he adds, “hundreds of other scientists had their careers advanced using WI-38 and other human cell cultures so we all owe a moral debt to the tissue donors.”
posted by BlueHorse at 4:23 PM on June 28, 2013


Minor point, but unlike what this post states, WI-38s are not stem cells. They are terminally differentiated lung fibroblasts with a limited proliferative capability.
posted by The Bishop of Turkey at 5:28 PM on June 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


'Boston patients' still HIV free after quitting antiretroviral meds, thanks to stem-cell transplants.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:34 AM on July 3, 2013


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