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Fetal Tissue Research, Donald Trump and the Science Behind Politics

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The human embryonic tissues that were used to develop the treatments President Trump received for the coronavirus are indispensable in research being done at UCSF, Stanford and other research labs in the Bay Area.

The antibody concoction was derived from cells harvested from aborted fetuses, which are routinely used in modern molecular biology and by scientists developing drugs, even though the Trump administration imposed a federal ban on the practice over time. one year.

This is, for many Democrats, an example of the administration’s hypocrisy that the President would benefit from fetal cell research after cutting federal funding for it in June 2019. But there is an explanation, although it does not go well with the opponents president.

The funding cuts did not include cell lines harvested before 2019, so the cocktail of monoclonal antibodies used by the president was still legal as it had been developed from tissue from abortions performed almost half a year ago. -century.

Remdesivir, an antiviral drug the president also took, was also developed from decades-old human embryonic cells. (The World Health Organization this week questioned the usefulness of the drug, saying that remdesivir has “little or no effect on mortality” for hospitalized patients with coronavirus and does not appear to help them. to recover faster)

As many as 13 COVID-19 vaccine candidates have relied on fetal cell lines in one way or another, the researchers say.

“In the president’s case, he is the direct beneficiary of the fetal research in the 1970s which is essential” for the biotech industry, said Warner Greene, senior virologist at the Gladstone Institutes, a biomedical research laboratory in San Francisco. “These fetal tissues have led to new approaches to cancer, various viral infections, Alzheimer’s disease, diseases of the spinal cord and other diseases of the nervous system.

Trump received an IV infusion produced by pharmaceutical company Regeneron made from monoclonal antibodies – synthetic, lab-made clones of antibodies produced by people who have recovered from COVID-19. The monoclonal cocktail is currently only given to people enrolled in clinical trials. Greene said the mixture had at most been supplied to ten other people as part of the compassionate use program that Trump has used for patients who have no other alternative.

The drug cocktail was tested using viral particles created in the lab using so-called 293T cells, which were taken from kidney tissue from an aborted fetus in the 1970s. This, and another lineage cell used to do the treatment, are known as HEK, for Human Embryonic Kidney. They have been grown in tissue cultures, kept alive for decades, and have been used by researchers around the world, including prominent vaccine developers Moderna and AstraZeneca.

Greene said the antibodies would prevent the infamous spikes, or coronas, which give the coronavirus its name, from binding to ACE2 receptors in human cells, “nipping the infection in the bud right off the bat.”

“In terms of the cell line, they’re like gold,” said Greene, who characterized fetal cells as “irreplaceable” in the study of disease.

Trump’s funding cut did not include the use of new human fetal tissue by local, state, academic, or private research institutions that do not use federal money. But most biomedical researchers need grants from the National Institutes of Health, the largest provider of medical research funding in the country.

The problem is that all grant applications involving embryonic cells are now reviewed by the NIH Fetal Tissue Ethics Advisory Board, which has rejected 13 of the 14 applications received since the review process was created in 2019, said Greene.

The 2019 decision to cut federal funding for fetal cell research ended at least 200 projects across the country, including decades-long research by the NIH and UCSF for a cure for HIV that involved transplantation of human fetal tissue into mice. These “humanized mice” – essentially mice with a human immune system – have been used for decades to study diseases, genetic conditions, and to test potential drug therapies as they progress through the life of rodents.

Greene said his own HIV research in Gladstone using humanized mice was halted because his partner worked for federal laboratories in Rocky Mountain, MT. Fetal cells are still used in research on mice using the old cell lines, he said, “but the tap’s off.

“We had some very interesting results and then we got down to our knees,” Greene said. “His decision was shortsighted and damaging.”

The companies that made the drugs Trump took have all received federal funding because they are part of Operation Warp Speed, the administration’s program to accelerate the development of coronavirus drugs and vaccines. This was despite opposition from some religious groups and conservative leaders.

Greene said he doubted the president would know he was the beneficiary of cell lines from fetal tissue even as he touted the monoclonal antibody cocktail as a “cure.”

“The irony is that Trump has halted research on fetal tissue, but fails to realize that treatments derived from embryonic cells from fetal tissue have played a central role in a therapy that seems to really, really have it. helped, ”he said. “These antibodies that the president has received are very promising therapies. I have high hopes for these antibodies for those who are infected and maybe even as a preventive measure. The challenge will be to produce them on a large scale. “

Peter Fimrite is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @pfimrite

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