Religious leaders have raised ethical doubts over one of Australia's primary coronavirus vaccine hopes because scientists have used foetal cells in its development.
Developers at Oxford University and pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca are using cell lines from an electively aborted foetus in the vaccine candidate, with Anglican, Catholic and Greek Orthodox leaders questioning the practice.
But using foetal cells in vaccine development isn't new and the Catholic Church has previously expressed qualified support for the use of vaccines derived from these cells under certain circumstances.
We spoke to Bill Lott, a virologist at QUT's Institute of Health and biomedical innovation, to understand the role of foetal cells in vaccine development.
The foetal cells used in vaccine development are derived from a small number of foetuses which were legally terminated decades ago.
The Oxford vaccine uses HEK (human embryonic kidney) 293 cell lines, obtained from a female foetus in the Netherlands in 1973.
"We're using tissues that were from foetuses that were aborted 40, 50, 60 years ago," Dr Lott said.
"It doesn't require newly aborted foetuses."
While living human cells can only divide around 50 times, those foetal cells have been genetically modified so they can divide an infinite number of times.
"That's why we can use the cells that we harvested [decades ago] today," Dr Lott said.
"They're not the actual original cells, they've been immortalised and then propagated over the decades."
This means we'll never need to replace specimens used in development.
"Just by analogy, buying ivory is illegal [because] if you create a market for ivory, then it creates the demand to kill more elephants," Dr Lott said.
"In this case, that's not happening because these foetuses were aborted 60 years ago, 50 years ago, and using these immortalised tissues now is not going to create a need to go and get new ones."
In fact, scientists would prefer to keep using HEK 293 cell lines because they have been repeatedly tried and tested in a laboratory setting and found to be safe.
"When you're making a vaccine you require safety testing," Dr Lott said.
"If we went back and used a different cell type, you're throwing an unknown into the consideration.
"So that will severely slow down your ability to make these things.
"Using HEK 293, we've used it for decades and we know that it's safe."
This week, Australia's Deputy Chief Medical Officer Nick Coatsworth pointed out the use of foetal cells had been a "reality" in past vaccine development.
"The reality for vaccines is that they need cell cultures in order for us to grow them," he said.
"The human cell is a really important part of their development.
"There are strong ethical regulations surrounding the use of any type of human cell, particularly foetal human cells.
"This is a very professional, highly powered research unit at Oxford University.
"I think we can have every faith that the way they have manufactured the vaccine has been against the highest of ethical standards internationally."
Breaking down the latest news and research to understand how the world is living through an epidemic, this is the ABC's Coronacast podcast.
So, how do foetal cells help with vaccine development? Dr Lott explained they operate like a "vaccine factory".
First, scientists need to develop the vaccine candidate and then combine it with an adenovirus vector.
An adenovirus is a particular type of common virus that causes illnesses like bronchitis, pneumonia and a sore throat.
For instance, when you get a cold, you may be infected with an adenovirus, a coronavirus or a rhinovirus.
A vector is an organism that spreads infection by moving pathogens from one host to another.
So an adenovirus vector? "That's an adenovirus that has been sort of emptied out and then you put a different kind of genome in there to make protein," Dr Lott said.
The next step is to put the vaccine/adenovirus vector combination into a big vat of foetal cells.
"The viral vector infects these HEK 293 cells really, really efficiently," Dr Lott said.
"One reason why you use the HEK 293 is because you get essentially 100 per cent infection with the adenoviral vector.
"And what it does is it turns the HEK 293 cells into a vaccine factory."
What do we mean by "vaccine factory"? Dr Lott explains foetal cells begin producing "tons and tons of that modified adenovirus" which they then "spit out into the liquid bit of the cells" called the cell culture media.
"[The foetal cells] start cranking out this massive amount of modified adenovirus, and then you purify those things away from the cell tissue," he said.
"You pull the [cell] media off, and it's just going to be full of the vaccine and essentially no tissue.
"And that's what your vaccine is."
The foetal cells will operate as this "vaccine factory" regardless of whether the vaccine is effective or not so the next step generally involves animal and then human trials of varying scale.
Inherent in the whole process is stripping away the conditioned cell media, where the foetal cells are contained.
The head of the World Health Organization has warned we may never get a silver bullet for COVID-19. What could that future look like in Australia?
That means a successful vaccine developed using foetal cells will have no remnants of those cells in the final product.
"You purify the vaccine away from the cells that they were grown in, and then you destroy all the cells," Dr Lott said.
"So then you're going to take that liquid and you'll purify it some more, but there are not going to be any [foetal] cells in there.
"There's nothing left when it becomes the vaccine that gets delivered."
Foetal tissue has been used with innovative effect in various strands of medical research.
The difference is some of those processes require fresh foetal cells not the "immortalised" cells vaccine developers can use.
"The vaccine work is pretty straightforward," Dr Lott said.
"But cancer research, the research into the mechanisms of various things cystic fibrosis, haemophilia, rheumatoid arthritis that all required fresh foetal tissue."
Scientists studying Zika virus used foetal cells to discover that the virus crossed the placental membrane and caused brain damage in unborn foetuses.
"[That research] brought out a whole raft of therapies and protections for unborn foetuses [and] "saved a lot of lives, including [the lives of] unborn foetuses," Dr Lott said.
Foetal cell lines have been used in the development of various vaccines, including for chicken pox, Ebola, polio, rubella, shingles, Hepatitis A, and rabies.
Foetal tissue has also facilitated breakthroughs in the treatment of various medical issues including cystic fibrosis, haemophilia, IVF, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases, AIDS, and spinal cord injuries.
Scientists have many different methodologies for developing vaccines and there are a variety of reasons why foetal cells aren't always used.
Billions are being poured into the race to find a coronavirus vaccine, with the winner owning a powerful political tool. During the last pandemic an Australian company got there first.
"Some of them don't use it because of ethical issues," Dr Lott said.
"Some of them don't use it because they're not using an adenovirus [vector], so they don't really need the HEK 293.
"And there are other [development] strategies.
"There's an mRNA strategy that's very popular.
"So some of them don't require it."
The development of a coronavirus vaccine was time critical because of the virus' devastating public health and economic impacts, Dr Lott said.
Therefore, it was important for scientists to diversify their methodologies in order to develop a vaccine as quickly as possible.
Both stem cells and foetal cells are critical to innovations in medical research but what's the difference between the two?
Dr Lott explains stem cells are basically the earliest iteration of a foetal cell before the cell differentiates itself into, for example, a hair cell, liver cell, eye cell or skin cells.
"A stem cell is simply a cell that can turn into a different cell types," Dr Lott said.
"That first embryonic stem cell can eventually turn into any kind of cell in your body.
"So you've got embryonic stem cells, and then you've got adult stem cells, and in between are the foetal stem cells [which] are partially differentiated.
"So foetal cells contain not only stem cells some of the foetal cells have already differentiated into their final cell type."
In 2005 and again in 2017, the Catholic Church expressed qualified support for the use of foetal-cell-derived vaccines but only if there was no available alternative.
A 2005 "moral reflection" issued by Pope Benedict XVI specifically addressed the issue.
"As regards the diseases against which there are no alternative vaccines which are available and ethically acceptable, it is right to abstain from using these vaccines if it can be done without causing children, and indirectly the population as a whole, to undergo significant risks to their health," the Pope wrote.
"However, if the latter are exposed to considerable dangers to their health, vaccines with moral problems pertaining to them may also be used on a temporary basis.
"We find a proportional reason, in order to accept the use of these vaccines in the presence of the danger of favouring the spread of the pathological agent."
In 2017, the life ethics arm of the Catholic Church issued a statement that: Catholic parents could vaccinate their children with a "clear conscience" that "the use of such vaccines does not signify some sort of cooperation in voluntary abortion".
Earlier this year and in the context of the coronavirus vaccine race, John Di Camillo, an ethicist with the National Catholic Bioethics Center, confirmed: "One is allowed to make use of [vaccine derived from foetal tissue] where there's a serious threat to the health or life of the individual, or of the greater population.
"This does not amount to a strictobligationto use it, but it certainly can be a legitimate choice in conscience if theres that serious reason, and there's no other reasonable alternative."
- Global Stem Cell Technologies and Applications Market 2020-2030 - GlobeNewswire - April 16th, 2021
- Global Human Embryonic Stem Cells Industry Market 2021 In-depth Industry Analysis, Growth By 2027:Lonza Group Ltd., Life Technologies Corporation,... - April 6th, 2021
- Human Embryonic Stem Cells (HESC) Market 2021 Is Rapidly Increasing Worldwide in Near Future | Top Companies Analysis- ESI BIO, Thermo Fisher,... - April 6th, 2021
- Scientists grow and observe mouse embryos outside the womb - ISRAEL21c - April 6th, 2021
- New Michigan law requires those receiving Johnson & Johnson vaccine be told it was developed using stem cells | TheHill - The Hill - April 6th, 2021
- Stem Cell Therapy Market Latest Innovations and Trends to Boost Growth during 2021-2028 | Astellas Pharma Inc, Cellular Engineering Technologies,... - April 6th, 2021
- Xenobots 2.0 are Here and Still Developed With Frog Stem Cells - Unite.AI - April 6th, 2021
- Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells Market Exclusive insight on Transformation 2029 SoccerNurds - SoccerNurds - March 29th, 2021
- Human Embryonic Stem Cells | The Embryo Project Encyclopedia - March 24th, 2021
- Sydney archbishop urges 'deep breath' after news of artificial embryos - Long Island Catholic - March 24th, 2021
- Researchers grow mouse embryos outside the uterus to reveal hidden growth stages - SlashGear - March 20th, 2021
- Industry Overview of Stem Cell Treatments: Market Report Based on Development, Scope, Share, Trends, Forecast to 2026 SoccerNurds - SoccerNurds - March 15th, 2021
- A Genetic Curse, a Scared Mom, and the Quest to 'Fix' Embryos - WIRED - March 13th, 2021
- Deciphering epiblast lumenogenesis reveals proamniotic cavity control of embryo growth and patterning - Science Advances - March 11th, 2021
- Promising stem-cell based drug for treatment of ALS receives patent - The Jerusalem Post - March 11th, 2021
- Human embryo research beyond the primitive streak - Science Magazine - March 11th, 2021
- Detroit mayor turned down J&J vaccine in favor of others - WCNC.com - March 11th, 2021
- 14 Advantages and Disadvantages of Embryonic Stem Cell ... - March 7th, 2021
- Embryonic stem cell | biology | Britannica - March 7th, 2021
- Is the coronavirus vaccine made from fetal cell lines? - March 7th, 2021
- Effect of Nanog overexpression on the metastatic potential of a mouse melanoma cell line B16-BL6 - DocWire News - March 7th, 2021
- Gene behind third of cancers turned off by scientists - Yahoo Sports - March 3rd, 2021
- Comprehensive Report on Human Embryonic Stem Cells Market 2021 | Size, Growth, Demand, Opportunities & Forecast To 2027 | CellTherapies P/L,... - March 3rd, 2021
- Stem Cell Therapy Market 2021 Global Industry Size, Reviews, Segments, Revenue, and Forecast to 2027 NeighborWebSJ - NeighborWebSJ - March 1st, 2021
- Innovative Stem Cells Market Research Report Segmented by Applications, Geography, Trends and Projection 2026 Express Keeper - Express Keeper - March 1st, 2021
- Human Embryonic Stem Cells Industry Market 2021 Overview, Opportunities, In-Depth Analysis by 2027:Lonza Group Ltd., Life Technologies Corporation,... - February 25th, 2021
- Stem Cell Therapy Market Size 2021 | Analysis, Regional Outlook, Competitive Strategies And Forecast up to 2027 - NY Market Reports - February 25th, 2021
- Global Cell Freezing Media for Cell Therapy Market Size, Analysis, Growth ratio, Top Players and Fut - PharmiWeb.com - February 25th, 2021
- The Very First Signs of an Immune Response Have Been Filmed in a Developing Embryo - ScienceAlert - February 14th, 2021
- Outlook on the Cell Therapy Global Market to 2027 - Opportunity Analysis and Industry Forecasts - Yahoo Eurosport UK - February 10th, 2021
- Translational Regenerative Medicine Market: Immunotherapy is projected to be the fastest growing segment during the forecast period - BioSpace - February 10th, 2021
- Study identifies major flaws in iBMEC-based models of the blood-brain barrier - News-Medical.Net - February 10th, 2021
- Harnessing the Potential of Cell and Gene Therapy - OncLive - February 5th, 2021
- When scientific data is too good to be true - Haaretz - February 5th, 2021
- Global Human Embryonic Stem Cells Market increasing demand with Industry Professionalist |know the Brand Players forecast 2027 Jumbo News - Jumbo... - February 5th, 2021
- Should We Double The Age When Science Can Experiment On Babies? - 550 KTSA - February 5th, 2021
- Push on to Allow Expanded Human-Embryo Research - National Review - February 3rd, 2021
- Missouri State Representative Indicted Over Alleged Stem Cell Therapy Scam - IFLScience - February 3rd, 2021
- ToolGen ties up with 3D bioprinting company to apply induced pluripotent stem cells to gene correction - Aju Business Daily - February 3rd, 2021
- Stem Cells Market is Expected to Thrive at Impressive CAGR by 2025 Murphy's Hockey Law - Murphy's Hockey Law - February 3rd, 2021
- Louisiana Right to Life: COVID-19 vaccines and abortion - The Baptist Message - January 16th, 2021
- Organoids show how mutations in top autism gene may lead to brain overgrowth in people - Spectrum - January 16th, 2021
- Reversing The Aging Clock With Epigenetic Reprogramming - Bio-IT World - January 16th, 2021
- Global Stem Cell Therapy Market Report 2020: Market to Recover and Reach $14.76 Billion in 2023 at a CAGR of 19.62% - Forecast to 2030 - Yahoo Finance - January 8th, 2021
- Factor Bioscience spins out a new cell therapy player with eyes on the clinic within 2 years - Endpoints News - January 8th, 2021
- 'He was very honored in his work' - Mercer Island Reporter - December 28th, 2020
- Stem Cell Assay Market In-Depth Analysis and Forecast 2017-2025 - NeighborWebSJ - December 25th, 2020
- Israeli biotech firm's ALS treatment shows safety of use in trials - The Jerusalem Post - December 18th, 2020
- Ca Bishops To Work w/ Govt on Vaccination Campaigns - Catholic Herald Online - December 15th, 2020
- Advanced Therapy Medicinal Products Market 2019 Global Industry Analysis By Size, Share, Trends and - PharmiWeb.com - December 10th, 2020
- Accelerating Sales in North America to Drive the Stem Cell Therapy market between 2020 and 2030 - Cheshire Media - December 3rd, 2020
- Human Embryonic Stem Cells Market in Global : Current and the Future Trends: Astellas Pharma Inc/ Ocata Therapeutics, Stemcell Technologies Inc - The... - December 3rd, 2020
- Stem Cells Market Size on Target to Reach US$ 17.79 Billion 2027 - Cheshire Media - December 3rd, 2020
- GFI1: New Role Uncovered for a Protein Involved in Hearing : The Hearing Journal - LWW Journals - December 3rd, 2020
- Human Embryonic Stem Cells (HESC) Market 2019 | Analyzing The Impact Followed By Restraints, Opportunities And Projected Developments | DataIntelo -... - December 1st, 2020
- Stem Cell Manufacturing Market Analysis by Industry Size, Share, Key Drivers, Growth Factors, Demands, Top Manufacturers- Merck Group, Becton,... - December 1st, 2020
- Stem Cells Market is Expected to Thrive at Impressive CAGR by 2025 - The Haitian-Caribbean News Network - December 1st, 2020
- This Date in UCSF History: Election Offers Mixed Bag of Results - Synapse - December 1st, 2020
- Stem Cell Therapy Market Research Report Forecast to 2029 (Includes Business Impact of COVID-19) - Cheshire Media - December 1st, 2020
- Stem Cell Assay to Register Substantial Expansion by 2026| Merck, Thermo Fisher Scientific, GE Healthcare - The Haitian-Caribbean News Network - December 1st, 2020
- Autism genes affect development of neurons and glia - Spectrum - November 28th, 2020
- Stem Cell Medical Research to Expand in California Following Passage of Prop. 14 - Times of San Diego - November 28th, 2020
- TRF2-mediated telomere protection is dispensable in pluripotent stem cells - Nature.com - November 26th, 2020
- Stem Cell Therapy Global Market Report 2020-30: Covid 19 Growth and Change - Yahoo Finance UK - November 26th, 2020
- Stem Cells Market 2020: Rising with Immense Development Trends across the Globe by 2027 - The Market Feed - November 26th, 2020
- Stem Cell Characterization and Analysis Tool Market 2020: Potential growth, attractive valuation make it is a long-term investment | Know the COVID19... - November 26th, 2020
- Global Regenerative Medicine Market 2020-2025: Opportunities with the Implementation of the 21st Century Cures Act - Yahoo Eurosport UK - November 26th, 2020
- Mount Sinai Cardiologist Awarded $2.9 Million NIH Grant to Advance Work with Stem Cells and Heart Repair after Heart Attack - Cath Lab Digest - November 25th, 2020
- Dr. David Steenblock - Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine - BlogTalkRadio - November 25th, 2020
- Breakthroughs in Stem Cell Based Treatment of Heart Disease - The Connecticut College Voice - November 25th, 2020
- Stem Cell Therapy Market To Observe Exponential Growth By 2020-2027 | Reports Globe - Cheshire Media - November 25th, 2020
- The Stem Cell Characterization and Analysis Tools Market to grow incomparably in the next decade - The Market Feed - November 25th, 2020
- University of Alberta research team poised to cure diabetesagain - Wetaskiwin Times Advertiser - November 23rd, 2020
- New Role For Serotonin Identified In The Evolution Of The Developing Brain - Anti Aging News - November 18th, 2020
- AgeX Therapeutics Reports Third Quarter 2020 Financial Results and Provides Business Update - Business Wire - November 18th, 2020
- Stem Cell Banking Market is Projected to Reach $6,956 million by 2023 | Leading key players are Cord Blood Registry, ViaCord, Cryo-Cell, China Cord... - November 14th, 2020
- California approves billions for stem-cell research - Modern Healthcare - November 14th, 2020
- Cell Freezing Media for Cell Therapy Market 2020 Strategic Assessment BioLife Solutions, Thermo Fisher Scientific, GE Healthcare - KYT24 - November 14th, 2020
- The heart of a mouse embryo was first created from stem cells - FREE NEWS - November 11th, 2020
- Genetic Mechanism Identified in Neonatal Diabetes Could Offer Insights into Other Forms of the Disease - Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News - November 11th, 2020