Tissue Transplants: The Coming Battle

Author: Dr. Joseph Martino

Celebrate Life March-April 1994

TISSUE TRANSPLANTS: THE COMING BATTLE by Joseph P. Martino, Ph.D., copyright 1994

One year ago, President Clinton rescinded the ban on federal funding of experiments with fetal tissue, a ban that had originally been imposed by President George Bush. To many in the pro-life movement, this was the reversal of a battle which they thought had been won. Unfortunately, the situation was even worse than many realized. When President Bush imposed a ban on funding of fetal tissue experiments, he temporarily won a battle but lost the war.

There had been considerable interest in the possibility that fetal tissues might be used to counteract Parkinson's Disease. This disease arises from the death of certain nerve cells in the human brain. The idea was that cells from an unborn baby might avoid rejection by the recipient's immune system, and would grow to replace the failed cells in the recipient.

A wide range of organizations, from the Alliance for Aging Research to the United Parkinson Foundation, and including several medical societies, supported the use of fetal tissues in experiments to determine whether they would actually have the suggested beneficial effect. To date, all such experiments have been inconclusive. However, people suffering from Parkinson's Disease, as well as many victims of other degenerative diseases, wanted more experiments, in the hope that the treatment would prove effective.

The problem for pro-lifers was that the cells to be transplanted would be obtained from aborted fetuses. Moreover, because the cells had to be living, they would be obtained from the brains of living fetuses. The cells would literally be harvested from live babies, before the babies were killed.

As a stopgap measure, Bush established a tissue bank, to be used for experimental purposes. The tissues were to be obtained from miscarriages, spontaneous abortions, ectopic pregnancies, and other sources that didn't involve deliberately procured abortions. These tissues were to be used to verify whether the proposed treatment actually worked.

By establishing such a tissue bank, however, Bush conceded the basic demands of the proponents of fetal tissue transplants. To begin with, it was doubtful that the tissues in the bank would be satisfactory, since they would be abnormal at best and might even be dead. Moreover, the proponents of fetal tissue transplants could easily have overwhelmed even a supply of live and healthy tissue. All that would have been necessary was that experimenters propose a large number of experiments, and have pro-abortion "peer reviewers" rate them as "good science." Ultimately, however, had the experiments proven successful, the nearly one million Parkinson's Disease sufferers in the U.S. would have demanded far more tissues than could have been supplied by spontaneous abortions. Thus, even by allowing the experiments to continue at all, President Bush started the nation down a path that would lead to regular use of fetal tissue from procured abortions. President Clinton's recision of the fetal tissue funding ban was merely the next milestone on that path.

Had the experiments on patients with Parkinson's Disease turned out to be failures, the demand for fetal tissue might have vanished. However, new developments promise to create a huge demand for fetal tissue regardless of the outcome of the experiments with treatments for Parkinson's Disease.

Current experiments with "biosynthetic skin" are much more successful than the Parkinson's experiments. Burn victims, and people suffering from skin cancer, often need extensive skin grafts. Where possible, the grafts are taken from other parts of the victim's body, to eliminate problems of immune rejection. A severely burned patient, however, may not have enough skin to provide a source for grafts.

It turns out that the dermis, which underlies the epidermis (the outer layer of skin), is less subject to rejection than is the epidermis. Thus grafts from donors can often be accepted. Dermis grafts can be lifesaving for burn victims.

A technique currently undergoing testing involves growing dermis cells, which can then be grafted onto a burn victim. A fragment of tissue is placed in a solution that dissolves it into individual cells. These cells are then placed on a closely spaced mesh of biodegradable fibers, and immersed in a nutrient bath. The cells grow and multiply to form a layer on the mesh. This layer can then be transplanted, and the mesh eventually disappears, leaving a healthy dermis to replace the one the recipient lost.

The technique is not limited to growing dermal tissue. It can also be used to grow cultured cartilage, and cultured livers, both of which are readily accepted by the body's immune system. The cartilage could be used to reconstruct noses, knees, and ears. The livers could be used to replace failing livers.

From a humane standpoint, these biosynthetic tissues offer great promise. They can save lives, restore function to damaged joints, and rebuild facial features ravaged by cancer or accident. The problem is, where will the tissue come from?

Currently, the original tissue to be grown into skin is obtained from foreskins available as a result of circumcisions in hospitals. This is clearly waste tissue, and recovering it for beneficial use is not only acceptable but praiseworthy.

However, this source will not be able to supply all the skin needed once the technique is proven and adopted as a standard treatment. Moreover, this source cannot supply cartilage or liver tissue.

Given the existing pressure to use fetal tissue as a possible cure for Parkinson's Disease despite the lack of success so far, it is easy to see what will happen once cultured biosynthetic tissues enter standard medical practice. The only possible source for the amount of "seed" material required will be aborted fetuses. Since the tissues must be living, it will no longer be a matter of extracting only brain tissue from a living child, but of "harvesting" the whole living body, chopping it into pieces to be used as the starting point for cultured tissues.

The horrors we have seen in the past 20 years may be only a preview of what is coming. We may find abortion counselors reassuring their clients by saying, "Some good will come of this. The tissues will be used to save someone's life." We may even find women being paid to "grow" a baby until it's ready for "harvest."

Those of us in the pro-life movement need to be aware of the implications of current medical research on cultured tissue. We may have only a year or two before cultured dermis becomes an approved medical practice. Once that happens, the link between abortions and tissue harvesting will be forged quickly. We need to begin educating people that harvesting tissue from unborn babies is too high a price to pay, even to save the lives of burn victims.

Dr. Joseph Martino is a Senior Research Scientist at the University of Dayton Research Institute, and President of Shelby County (Ohio) Right to Life.

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