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Miscellaneous issue: Testimony of Samuel M. Cohen Concerning Fetal Tissue Research

Testimony of Samuel M. Cohen, M.D./Ph.D.
University of Nebraska Medical Center
To the Health & Environment Subcommittee of the Commerce Committee
United States House of Representatives
Concerning Fetal Tissue Research

Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee: I am Dr. Samuel Cohen. I am Chairman of the Department of Pathology and Microbiology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha where I have been on the faculty for the past nearly 20 years. I am also a professor in the Eppley Institute for Research in Cancer at the Medical School. My own research work is in cancer, especially chemical carcinogenesis. However, I am here today to express my strong support for fetal tissue research, which is being actively pursued in my department, and the potential future benefits of this research for treating human disease.

I speak today concerning the need to ensure the advancement of critical medical research while protecting the ethical and moral concerns of the American people. Fetal tissue is used in a variety of medical research studies and is vital to the biomedical research enterprise. Guidelines and laws governing the use of this tissue ensure its safe and ethical use. I believe that the great majority of those who use fetal tissue in their research are scrupulous in following the letter and spirit of the law, among other reasons because they are aware of the great sensitivity around its use. Certainly anyone in willful violation of the law should be prosecuted as allowed by law. The continuing challenge to Congress is to assure the public that new knowledge will not be misused and that the ethics of work enabled by this miraculous line of research is carefully considered while protecting the advancement of science.

I am concerned that in attempting to enforce the laws governing fetal tissue research and the distribution of such tissue, Congress may unnecessarily over-restrict fetal tissue research. This would be a grave mistake. In my home state of Nebraska, such an effort is underway, but as our state legislators have come to understand the remarkable potential of this work, they have come to defend it.

Why do I, and other researchers like me, believe fetal tissue research is important?

  • The study of fetal tissue has already led to major discoveries in human health and has the potential to continue to benefit mankind. For example, the vaccines for rubella and varicella were made from human cell-line cultures. These vaccines have effectively eradicated a major source of child mortality and mental retardation in the U.S. Research utilizing fetal cells was critical to the ultimate development of the polio vaccine, a scourge that is about to be eliminated from the face of the earth.
  • Researchers use fetal tissue to investigate questions of normal fetal development.
  • Fetal tissue has become a mainstay in the human genome project and in the revolutionary developments in molecular genetics that offer promise for the development of new therapies.
  • Due to their capacity to rapidly divide, grow and adapt to new environments, fetal cells hold unique promise for medical research into a variety of diseases and medical conditions. In particular, there is exciting potential to use fetal tissue to transplant into other humans to treat disease. There is hope that fetal tissue transplanted into patients with illnesses such as Parkinson's, diabetes or heart disease may be effective in mitigating or even treating these diseases. Fetal cells elicit less of an immune response than adult cells and are therefore less susceptible to rejection by the human body. Fetal cells are not as developed as adult cells and are therefore more able to accommodate to the donor. In experiments with fetal cell transplantation in Parkinson's patients, we are seeing great promise that such treatments will be effective.
  • Research using fetal cells at UNMC involves basic laboratory investigations into the development of a variety of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease and AIDS dementia. Our hope is to better understand these disease processes, with the ultimate goal of developing new therapeutic interventions and even prevention strategies.
  • Research provides the opportunity to develop new models that have the potential to ultimately substitute for fetal tissue for study of basic neuronal function. Only additional time and research will be able to determine if alternative models will be viable replacements for the use of fetal tissue as a source of cells for this research. Recently some of my colleagues working in this area at the University of Nebraska Medical Center discovered a new gene which may be involved in the process of the development of Alzheimer's disease NEBR 1. This and other research projects using fetal cells will be essential to ultimately conquer many terrible diseases.
  • A cell line (MRC-5) derived from an aborted fetus is routinely used worldwide in clinical practice for viral cultures.

Fetal tissue studies play a vital role in many areas of biomedical research. It is critical that Congress protect the ability of scientists to use this valuable resource as a means for studying human disease. We in the scientific community are aware of the ethical sensitivities that have been expressed regarding the use of fetal tissue. But, surely, obtaining cells from legally obtained abortions for potentially life-saving purposes is ethically permissible and indeed ethically necessary. I am confident that we can protect against abuses in the fetal tissue supply arena while also protecting promising life-saving research.

Mr. Chairman, thank you for the opportunity to present my thoughts today. I would be pleased to answer any questions.

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