What Can Fetal Tissue Teach Scientists? Vital Vaccines Were Developed Thanks To Research That Used It

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One of the few things candidates at the GOP debates last week agreed upon was that they would cut funding for Planned Parenthood. Although Republicans have never been the organization's biggest fan, this latest call for cuts comes in the wake of a controversial video showing a Planned Parenthood official talking about "selling" fetal tissue for research purposes. Since the video's release, details have surfaced that an anti-abortion group, the Center for Medical Progress, went undercover to record the official, and that the short, edited version first released was deceiving compared to the full two-hour-long footage. The Planned Parenthood representatives were actually speaking about donated fetal tissue. But it brings up an interesting point: What is tissue from aborted fetuses actually used for? As it turns out, fetal tissue is vital in medical research.

According to CNN, a fetus' tissue is usually taken and then used to grow more cells in a laboratory. Just to be clear, it is illegal to  sell fetal tissue, but it is not illegal to donate it, and the law allows for fees to pay for any costs associated with the donation — such as money for transporting, preserving, and processing the materials.

Fetal tissue has been critical in vaccine development, according to the AP. In the 1960s, scientists were able to take cells from two voluntarily aborted fetuses, which helped them develop vaccinations for hepatitis A, German measles, chickenpox, and rabies. Both the rubella and shingles vaccines were also developed using fetal tissue.

CNN explains that fetal tissue was used to create the first polio vaccine — which annually saves an estimated 550,000 lives.

More recently, according to The New York Times, fetal tissue has been used in treating spinal cord injuries at the University of California, San Diego. And researchers continue to discover how they could help treat other diseases like blindness, cancer, HIV, and diabetes.

Last June, Harvard found that fetal stem cells may be helpful in therapies for Parkinson's disease. The Harvard Stem Cell Institute found that by using the cells, those suffering from Parkinson's "were able to remain healthy and functional for up to 14 years."

According to the AP, researchers at MIT are using fetal tissue in an interesting way: They are studying human diseases in mice. By inserting the fetal cells into the the animal, they are able to create a human-like immune system, and test possible treatments on the mice instead of using human subjects.

Whatever you believe ethically, it's clear that fetal tissue cells have been crucial in developing vaccines and preventing diseases, and continue to fuel important medical breakthroughs. If you never had chicken pox, polio, or shingles, you can thank — at least in part — fetal tissue research.