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Spotlight thrown on fetal stem cell research in USA

10 August 2015

Fetal stem cell research in the USA has come under the spotlight after an undercover video was released of an official from Planned Parenthood, a pro-choice women's health organisation, discussing how fetal organs are being used in research.

The video, one of four released so far online, was created and edited by an anti-abortion group, The Center for Medical Progress, posing as interested employees of a biotech firm. Its footage appears to show Planned Parenthood's senior director of medical research, Deborah Nucatola, explaining how to abort a fetus in order to preserve its organs for medical research.

Nucatola also discusses the costs that are involved in sharing recovered tissues with scientists, valuing Planned Parenthood fetal tissue specimens at around $30 to $100, 'depending on the facility and what's involved'.

The videos have prompted many Republicans and anti-abortion groups to accuse the organisation of selling fetal tissue for a profit. Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry commented: 'The video showing a Planned Parenthood employee selling the body parts of aborted children is a disturbing reminder of the organisation's penchant for profiting off the tragedy of a destroyed human life.'

Another presidential hopeful, Jeb Bush, said, 'This is a shocking and horrific reminder that we must do much more to foster a culture of life in America.'

However, according to Linda Tracy, president of the tissue procurement company Advanced Bioscience Resources, the costs mentioned in the video are 'reasonable' and reflect the 'time, effort and space needed to obtain the fetal tissue'.

While it is currently illegal to buy or sell human fetal tissues in the USA, the National Institutes of Health Revitalisation Act of 1993 does, however, permit the making of 'reasonable payments associated with the transportation, implantation, processing, preservation, quality control, or storage of human fetal tissue'. What constitutes a 'reasonable payment' is not defined in the legislation.

Fetal cells are valuable for biomedical research into a variety of diseases and conditions, including spinal cord injuries, eye diseases, Parkinson's disease, and treatments for HIV/AIDS, particularly because of their ability to rapidly grow and adapt to new environments.

It is feared that the release of the video will have negative funding implications for research in this field. A bill to raise as much as $4.75 million for a breast cancer research organisation by was revised in the wake of the video, after critics linked it to Planned Parenthood.

While alternative stem-cell technologies – including stem cells derived from adult tissues – are being developed, they have yet to be fully validated so researchers still very much depend upon fetal stem cells in some studies.

Planned Parenthood maintains that its processes are legal and are only limited to a few states.

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