I've previously shared perspectives on some of the ethical issues surrounding distribution of any COVID-19 vaccine. Today's article, from Science News, instead looks at one of the ethical issues surrounding the development of a vaccine: which cell line does one choose to work with?
"Cell lines are cultures of human or other animal cells that can be grown for long periods of time in the lab. Some of these cultures are known as immortalized cell lines because the cells never stop dividing. Most cells can’t perform this trick — they eventually stop splitting and die. Immortal cell lines have cheated death. Some are more than 50 years old. Cell lines can be manipulated to become immortal. Or sometimes, immortality arises by chance. ... Immortalized cell lines are crucial for many different types of biomedical research, not just vaccines. They’ve been used to study diabetes, hypertension, Alzheimer’s and much more. Some are human cells, but many also come from animal models. For example, many COVID-19 studies — beyond just those related to vaccines — are using Vero cells, a cell line derived from the kidney of an African green monkey.... Two common immortalized cell lines go by the monikers HEK-293 and HeLa. HEK-293 is a cell line isolated from a human embryo that was electively aborted in the Netherlands in 1973. Catholic leaders and other antiabortion groups have objected to the use of HEK-293 in the development of some COVID-19 vaccine candidates. Cells derived from elective abortions, including HEK-293, have been used to develop vaccines, including rubella, hepatitis A, chickenpox and more. Other fetal cell lines, such as the proprietary cell line PER.C6, are also used in vaccine development, including for COVID-19. HeLa cells are named after Henrietta Lacks, a Black tobacco farmer and mother of five from Virginia who was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951. That cell line comes from a sample taken from her cervix by researchers at Johns Hopkins University when she was undergoing treatment there. ...
"More than 125 candidate vaccines against COVID-19 are under development around the world. ... Those vaccines can be divided into a few different types. Some, such as RNA vaccines ... do not require a live cell, and thus, no cell line. But other types do require live cells during their production. That includes candidates that use the old-school method for developing vaccines: attenuation. ... In another type of vaccine under development called viral-vector, the viral genes to produce immunity to the coronavirus are placed in another, harmless virus. That new combined virus is then grown in cells. HEK-293 cells, for example, are especially useful for vaccine work, [Columbia University virologist Angela] Rasmussen explains. It’s easy to put new viral genes in them, she says, and once they have the genes inside, HEK-293 cells can pump out large amounts of viral protein — exactly what’s needed to help people develop an immune response. HeLa are also relatively easy to work with. They can be used to analyze how the coronavirus enters cells to hijack their machinery, for example. ...
"No matter what cell line is used, ethical questions will need to be answered. Cell lines derived from animals have all the ethical complications associated with animal research. But in the case of fetal cells, some anti-abortion groups are opposed to using anything that involves fetal cell lines anywhere in its development. ... Catholics got permission in 2005 and 2017 from the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life to get vaccines that use historical fetal cell lines, if no alternatives are available. 'The reason is that the risk to public health, if one chooses not to vaccinate, outweighs the legitimate concerns about the origins of the vaccine,' [University of Massachusetts bioethicist Nicholas] Evans explains. Of course, many people who are anti-abortion are not Catholic, and not all Catholics agree. In the case of HeLa cells, the ethical problems began the day the cells were taken from Lacks, who was never told that her cells might be used for experimentation. 'There was no informed consent. She wasn’t aware, and her family wasn’t aware,' says Yolonda Wilson, a bioethicist at Howard University in Washington, D.C. ... 'It’s not this one-off … it’s a larger narrative of disrespecting Black patients, using Black people and Black bodies in experiments.' ...
"There’s no avoiding immortal cell lines. 'Certainly I would expect they would be involved in some of the work, directly or not' in any vaccine that comes out, Rasmussen says. Even though HeLa cells or HEK-293 cells might not be used in the production of a particular COVID-19 vaccine, they are being used as scientists work to understand the virus. Some knowledge gained from those cell lines will go into a vaccine, at the very least."
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