MADISON — High in a laboratory overlooking Lake Mendota, University of Wisconsin-Madison neuroscientist Gail Robertson is looking for the next breakthrough in medical science. If Republican lawmakers will let her, that is.
Robertson and her colleagues are working on research that could one day lead to treatments for irregular heartbeats. Their main tools, they say, are cells derived from aborted fetuses.
Republican legislators want to change that. Earlier this month they introduced a bill that would outlaw research on fetal tissue obtained from elective abortions performed after Jan. 1 of this year.
“We need to treat aborted children as humans, not specimens,” Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, one of the bill’s chief authors, told the Senate health committee last week.
But researchers like Robertson fear the door will be slammed on medical advances.
“We never know where the next paradigm shift is going to come, so we need all the tools we can get our hands on,” she said. “We need to unleash our efforts, our tools and our intelligence. That’s what drives progress.”
Research using fetal cell lines has been going on since the 1940s. The cell lines — samples of cells from fetal tissues that can reproduce themselves in labs, making them essentially immortal — are essential to research toward medical treatments, said Dr. Bob Golden, UW-Madison’s vice chancellor of medical affairs. The cells are pliable, haven’t formed hard-and-fast properties like adult cells and can replicate themselves quickly. Essentially, they’re a blank slate researchers use to test hypotheses, Golden said.
Under federal law, a woman who undergoes an abortion must consent to the fetus tissue being used for federally funded research. Selling the tissue for profit is illegal, although providers can recoup their expenses.
Fetal cells played a role in developing the vaccine for polio in the 1950s, Golden said. In the 1990s, Robertson and her colleagues used fetal cells to help develop a screening protocol for new drugs to ensure they don’t damage the heart — a test the U.S. Food and Drug Administration now requires for every drug.
UW researchers use grant money to purchase fetal cells from tissue banks, including facilities at the University of Washington-Seattle, the University of Southern California and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Some 100 laboratory groups on campus use fetal cells in their work today, Golden said.
One project includes using cells from aborted fetuses to identify brain changes that cause Down syndrome and devise ways to block those changes. Other researchers are using fetal cells to create an Ebola vaccine, Golden said.
Robertson’s team is using fetal cells to better understand how electrical charges pass through cell membranes in hopes of creating a treatment for rhythmic disorders such as irregular heartbeats and epilepsy. In her lab the cells grow in petri dishes the size of hockey pucks and are visible only through a microscope, where they look like branches of an unbelievably tiny tree.
Still, Republicans say it’s time for tighter restrictions that will preserve aborted fetuses’ dignity. And some scientists agree. Tara Sander Lee, a molecular researcher at the Medical College of Wisconsin, said using fetal tissue for research is an unethical way to prevent suffering. Researchers can find other sources of cells, such as tissue from the living or umbilical cord blood, she said.
“We cannot support the exploitation of one group — the unborn — for another,” she told the Senate committee.
The bill would allow researchers to use fetal cell lines developed before Jan. 1 of this year. But Golden said researchers need new lines, too. The old lines lose their properties after replicating themselves for generations and there’s no telling what new lines scientists might need to develop to advance their work.
Golden warned that the push for the law could prompt researchers to leave the state. Robertson said she’s already interviewing at two other institutions.
The state’s largest business group, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, usually a staunch Republican backer, has come out against the measure. And it’s unclear whether the bill will come to the floor of either chamber after a number of Republicans in both houses have expressed concerns about the measure’s impact on research.
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, has said he hopes to bring some sort of compromise bill to a vote by late October but he hasn’t said what might change.
Any eventual law might also face a legal challenge. Federal courts in Arizona, Utah, Louisiana and Illinois have struck down similar laws, finding them to be unconstitutionally vague.