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WASHINGTON — Two weeks ago, Will Burlingham, a professor of transplantation at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, got a surprise call from the National Institutes of Health: Would he like a little extra money to create more laboratory mice?

“It’s like Santa came early,” Burlingham told STAT. “We’ve been advised that we need to gear up and hire people.”


These aren’t just run-of-the-mill rodents. Burlingham’s mice are part-animal, part-person, implanted with a human-like immune system derived from tissue leftover when newborns undergo heart surgery. And the NIH is taking an interest in these mice because scientists might, in some cases, be able to use them instead of a more politically controversial research tool — mice implanted with fetal tissue that comes from abortions.

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  • Beware scientists making categorical statements, which are often untrue and more often specious. Statements like, “Certain experiments can really only be done on actual fetal tissue,” from Paul Knoepler are specious. Sure, experiments on fetal tissue can only be done with fetal tissue, but that does not mean that the information sought can only be obtained with fetal tissue. Humanized mice like the ones described can also be derived with ethically sourced tissues from adults and umbilical cord. Also beware statements from scientists that are obtusely erroneous. When Francis Collins says, “There is strong evidence that scientific benefits can come from fetal tissue research, which can be done with an ethical framework,” what is his ethical framework? Never addressing the significance of the elective death of human research subjects is not much of an ethical framework, and it is certainly not in keeping with other NIH guidelines for the ethical treatment of human research subjects. Present fetal tissue research arguments are not unlike the ones of the earlier human embryonic stem cell research debate, with some of the same characters emerging again. They are telling us again that medical expediency justifies unethical practices, when in fact it never should. Excellent ethical alternatives developed to substitute for human embryonic stem cells; and in the case of fetal tissue, excellent alternatives already exist. No model systems for biomedical research are perfect, but many are ethical.

  • StatNews article

    Thank you Mr. Swetlitz for a good summary of the issues we researchers face when trying to work with fetal/developing tissue, and thank you StatNews for providing a forum for discussion.

    This article provides a great opportunity for us to get at what I believe are the central ethical questions for anyone conducting, authorizing, or protesting developmental biological research: When does a fetus or newborn become human and when is it ethically mandated to stop experimenting with human tissue?

    I believe the answer resides with the answer to the question of when does a human fetus/newborn become conscious?

    There is a significant amount of evidence to suggest a developing human does not become conscious until shortly before, or perhaps even shortly after birth, and I’ll be happy to state that evidence very soon, but I wanted to throw this out to your readers so we can discuss this. Do you agree at the moment or disagree? What evidence can we add that furthers the discussion? Thanks so much for your consideration, as I plan to develop organs for transplantation (which is still ~20 years down the road), but I believe it’s important to have these discussions now as I’d like to sway public opinions on these important questions. Thank you for your consideration.


    Robert Smith
    Virginia, USA

    • Dear Robert:

      However you wish to define consciousness, it seems a rather convenient milestone for scientists who wish to obtain fetal tissue for experimentation, don’t you think so? I mean, by your measure, we might as well experiment with newborns of unwanted pregnancies. If that doesn’t strike you as problematic in some way, my guess is that the discussion you say you seek is already pretty much over. Let me suggest another way to consider the issue. At what point in your development from a single cell zygote to a fully developed adult would you say that your existence in the world was of no consequence?



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