GU to Continue Controversial Research
Fetal cells are not subject to federal restrictions, such as a ban on federal funding of research using embryonic stem cells created after August 2001. The Catholic church objects to research on cells from aborted fetuses, but it allows the use of cells from miscarried fetuses, including those from spontaneous abortions, because they were unplanned.
Vinnedge's organization, based in Clearwater, Fla., was established to protest the use of aborted fetal cell lines in developing vaccines. From reading scientific journals, Vinnedge said, she had identified several cell lines said to have come from aborted fetuses. When she searched for them by code number on the Internet, she found them on a Georgetown Web site listing cell lines in use at the medical center.
"I've never seen anything like this at a Catholic university," she said in a telephone interview this week.
Vinnedge's letter to McCarrick triggered an unprecedented internal review by Georgetown bioethicists, university officials said.
In weighing how to handle the issue, Georgetown looked to the debate of a decade ago, when many Catholics became aware that cells from an aborted fetus were used to originate cultures used to manufacture chicken pox vaccine and measles-mumps-rubella vaccine. Since then, a measles-mumps-rubella vaccine has been developed without cells from an aborted fetus, but the chicken pox vaccine is still made with the same cell line.
Church officials concluded that the benefits of widespread immunization significantly outweighed the drawbacks of using aborted fetal cells, said FitzGerald.
"The connection to the abortion was distant and remote enough to say that this in no way encouraged or facilitated further abortions," he said. "The good was a proportionately strong enough argument to say, 'Do this.' "
Georgetown applied the same rationale to the new dilemma, reasoning that the work its scientists had been doing was too important "to throw all this good stuff out," FitzGerald said.
But FitzGerald acknowledged the practical challenge of avoiding the cell lines in future research projects. Investigators often must use a particular line of aborted fetal cells to qualify for a grant because the National Institutes of Health or other research funding agencies want to compare the results with other studies performed using the same source material. Using cells with different traits would make comparisons invalid, he said.
FitzGerald said Georgetown scientists should not feel threatened by the university's actions. "We're not trying to roll back anybody's freedoms or disrupt anybody's research," he said.
Staff writer Rick Weiss contributed to this report.
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