For 50 years or more, researchers in Wisconsin and around the world have used cells derived from human fetal tissue to pursue cures for chronic diseases, to develop and produce vaccines and to conduct basic research on a wide range of human health issues.
A bill introduced last month in the Wisconsin Legislature would make it a crime for Wisconsin researchers to continue using those cells, even though they have done so legally, ethically and effectively for decades. Lawmakers who believe they are merely standing firm against abortion should think twice about the far-reaching effects of this bill on medical research and the state’s innovation economy.
Assembly Bill 214 and Senate Bill 172 would prohibit “a person knowingly and for valuable consideration acquiring, receiving or otherwise transferring a fetal body part in this state.” The identical bills define cells and tissues as fetal body parts, and they also ban “providing, receiving or using for experimentation a fetal body part” in Wisconsin – even if there was no “valuable consideration.”
If passed, the bill would effectively halt valuable work in scores of laboratories at the UW-Madison, the Medical College of Wisconsin and beyond, shut down long-standing research projects and essentially chase many researchers and emerging companies out of the state.
Cells derived from fetal tissue – in most cases, descendents of fetal cells first obtained decades ago – are used in a variety of ways. Vaccines for diseases such as polio, measles and hepatitis, to name a few, were historically rooted in work with fetal tissue.
At the Medical College of Wisconsin, researchers are beginning a clinical trial that involves implanting fetal neural cells into spinal cord injury patients. It may be the only hope right now for people paralyzed because of severe spinal trauma, yet it’s just one example of current research that would be banned.
Ironically, threatened research at the UW-Madison would include efforts to help mothers undergo more successful, healthy pregnancies. Spontaneous pregnancy loss and recurrent miscarriages, fetal growth restriction, preeclampsia, conditions of the maternal vascular system and fertility issues are among ongoing research trials that involve working with fetal tissue.
Other UW-Madison research that would end under a fetal tissue research ban include searches for cancer treatments, learning how white blood cells react to transplants, organ replacement therapies, responses of human immune cells to bacterial infections, vaccine development and the effects of Down’s Syndrome on fetal growth and development.
“These are workhorse cells used in (many) labs on campus,” said Dr. Timothy Kamp, a UW-Madison professor of medicine and director of a regenerative medicine program that focuses on heart problems. “Sudden loss of access to these lines could jeopardize many projects.”
At the Medical College of Wisconsin, the list also includes work related to turning adult stem cells into liver cells and clinical trials for drugs and diagnostics for Parkinson’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases.
If the bill’s intent is to discourage abortions, it may miss the mark. Only eight UW-Madison researchers out of the hundreds on campus who use fetal cells in their research derived their tissue from aborted fetuses, the campus reports. In all eight cases, the tissue would have been discarded by abortion clinics if not donated for research; no aborted tissue was bought or sold.
Some lawmakers may also think they’ve found a backdoor way to ban human embryonic stem-cell research, but the bill would likely have the opposite effect.
Dr. James Thomson, a pioneer of human embryonic stem-cell research, is also the same UW-Madison scientist who launched the search for alternative methods of creating embryonic stem cells through reverse engineering of human skin and other cells. One of his lines of “induced pluripotent stem cells,” which are produced from adult cells versus embryonic cells, can be traced back to fetal lung tissue.
Thomson’s company, Cellular Dynamics International, is also one of the most successful start-ups in Wisconsin, having attracted about $100 million in venture capital so far. This is not the kind of company that should be tempted to move to California.
Some sponsors of the bill believe it’s merely an extension of federal law, but that does not appear to be true. In fact, federal law does not prohibit the acquisition or transfer of fetal tissue across state lines, nor does it ban the use of fetal tissue in research. In other states, laws similar to AB 214 and SB 172 have been found to be unconstitutional.
This is a bill that will hurt Wisconsin’s ability to create and retain tech-based jobs, its research institutions and people everywhere who suffer from diseases and other health conditions. Let’s not roll back the clock on decades of medical progress.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal.