Colorado State University is one of multiple research institutions that uses stem cells from aborted fetal tissue to research HIV and AIDS, a practice some say is unnecessary and immoral, but researchers say is essential.
Emily Faulkner, a senior biology major at CSU and founder of the anti-abortion group, CSU Students for Life, has been advocating against the University’s use of fetal tissue for moral and legal reasons. Faulkner believes the University has illegally obtained fetal tissue for research and still could be after similar allegations against Planned Parenthood and CSU arose in 2015.
Earlier this semester, Faulkner hung posters that said CSU buys trafficked baby parts but says they were ripped down an hour later.
“For a community that expresses tolerance for (many other communities) it seems to be very intolerant of the pro-life community,” Faulkner said. “It’s really hard to open people’s minds to actually see what’s going on, especially when there’s so much intolerance.”
In January, a Republican panel from the House of Representatives released a report suggesting some Planned Parenthood clinics and firms sold fetal tissue for profit, which is illegal under federal law. The report concluded over a year-long investigation after similar allegations against Planned Parenthood arose in 2015.
The report cited documents indicating the University paid the tissue procurement organizations StemExpress and Advanced Bioscience Resources $2,000 and $100,000, respectively, for fetal tissue between 2010 and 2015. It is illegal to buy fetal tissue, but federal law does not specify how much can be charged for shipping and handling. The report questions whether or not ABR and StemExpress donated the fetal tissue or sold it for profit.
Faulkner brought up CSU’s use of fetal tissue this semester in response to the report. She and CSU Students for Life collected signatures on a petition that asked CSU President Tony Frank to investigate whether or not CSU was involved in illegal obtainment of fetal tissue and to acknowledge its use in research.
In response to the 2015 allegations, Frank wrote to Rep. Doug Lamborn stating that CSU was compliant with all state and federal laws in acquiring fetal tissue. According to Executive Director of Public Affairs and Communications, Mike Hooker, and the Vice President for Research, Alan Rudolph, the University has continued to follow the state and federal laws.
“(Part of) my job as an institutional official is making sure that we sustain the highest standards for practice even beyond what the feds recommend,” Rudolph said.
In addition to legal concerns, Faulkner also has moral concerns. She said that though abortion may be legal, that does not mean it is right. She expressed concern about fetal tissue and organs being harvested from late-term fetuses with beating hearts.
“It’s quite inhumane,” Faulkner said. “We’re talking about actual human beings that have livers, brains and hearts. They’re actually living, breathing beings.”
Faulkner said fetal tissue should not be necessary for research on curing or preventing HIV and AIDS, as there is also gene replacement therapy, which takes HIV out of infected cells, and pre-exposure prophylaxis treatment, which consists of taking a pill daily to prevent HIV. Faulkner also said that researchers could use induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) created from adult cells instead of stem cells from fetal tissue.
Pluripotent cells have the ability to become any cell in the body. However, according to Rudolph, iPS stem cells from adults cannot be used in CSU’s research on curing and bettering HIV and AIDS, which is conducted by CSU virology professor Ramesh Akkina.
“Fetal tissue research, especially the work that Ramesh does, cannot currently be done any other way,” Rudolph said.
Akkina uses stem cells from fetal tissue to recreate human immune systems in mice, which Rudolph said are multicellular systems. Akkina’s humanized mice can be used to study the effects of countermeasures, including therapeutics, antibodies, vaccines or biologics, on a human immune system meant to improve or cure HIV.
Rudolph said that while scientists are looking into how to conduct research on HIV and AIDS using iPS stem cells, the cells are more limited in their ability to create other types of cells than stem cells from fetal tissue are. He said that cells from fetal tissue are so far back in their development that they have the ability to create complex functions that are lost when cells become older. Cells are more pluripotent.
Faulkner said she hopes that scientists research and work with iPS stem cells.
“The lives of those affected by HIV/AIDS are very important, but so are the lives of the unborn,” Faulkner wrote in a message to the Collegian. “We cannot forget equality for all.”
Collegian reporter MQ Borocz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MQBorocz22.