The human embryonic tissues that were used to develop the treatments President Trump received for the coronavirus are indispensable in the research done at UCSF, Stanford and other Bay Area research laboratories.
The antibody concoction was derived from cells harvested from aborted fetuses, which are regularly used in modern molecular biology and by scientists developing drugs even though the Trump administration imposed a federal ban on the practice more than a year ago.
It is, to many Democrats, an example of the administration’s hypocrisy that the president would benefit from fetal cell research after he cut federal funding for it in June 2019. But there is an explanation, even if it doesn’t sit well with the president’s opponents.
The funding cuts did not include cell lines harvested before 2019, so the cocktail of monoclonal antibodies the president used was still legal because it was developed using tissues from abortions performed nearly a half century ago.
The anti-viral drug remdesivir, which the president also took, was developed using decades-old human embryonic cells, as well. (The World Health Organization cast doubt this week on the usefulness of that drug, saying remdesivir has “little or no effect on mortality” for hospitalized coronavirus patients and doesn’t seem to help them recover any faster)
As many as 13 COVID-19 vaccine candidates have relied in some way on fetal cell lines, according to researchers.
“In the case of the president, he is the direct beneficiary of fetal research in the 1970s that is pivotal” for the biotech industry, said Warner Greene, a senior virologist at the Gladstone Institutes, a San Francisco biomedical research laboratory. “These fetal tissues have led to new approaches to cancer, various viral infections, Alzheimer’s disease, spinal cord diseases and other diseases of the nervous system.”
Trump was given an IV infusion produced by the pharmaceutical firm Regeneron made of monoclonal antibodies — synthetic, lab-made clones of antibodies produced by people who have recovered from COVID-19. The monoclonal cocktail is only being given currently to people enrolled in clinical trials. Greene said the mixture has, at most, been provided to ten other people under the compassionate use program that Trump used for patients who have no other alternative.
The drug cocktail was tested using virus particles created in the lab using what are known as 293T cells, which came from the kidney tissue of a fetus aborted in the 1970s. This, and another cell line used to make the treatment, are known as HEK, for Human Embryonic Kidney. They were grown in tissue cultures, kept alive for decades and have been used by researchers around the world, including by prominent vaccine developers Moderna and AstraZeneca.
Greene said the antibodies are believed to prevent the infamous spikes, or coronas, which give the coronavirus its name, from binding to the ACE2 receptors in human cells, “nipping the infection in the bud right at the get go.”
“In terms of a cell line, they are like gold,” said Greene, who characterized the fetal cells as “irreplaceable” in the study of disease.
Trump’s funding cut did not include the use of new human fetal tissue by local, state, academic or private research institutions that don’t use federal money. But most biomedical researchers need grants from the National Institutes of Health, the country’s largest single provider of medical research funding.
The problem is that all grant applications involving embryonic cells are now reviewed by the NIH’s Fetal Tissue Ethics Advisory Board, which has denied 13 of 14 applications it has received since the review process was created in 2019, Greene said.
The 2019 decision to cut federal funding of fetal cell research ended at least 200 projects around the nation, including a decades-long search by NIH and UCSF for an HIV cure that involved transplanting human fetal tissue into mice. Such “humanized mice” — essentially mice with human immune systems — have been used for decades to study diseases, genetic conditions and to test potential drug therapies as they progress over the lifetimes of the rodents.
Greene said his own HIV research at Gladstone using humanized mice was cut off because his partner worked for the federal Rocky Mountain Laboratories, in Montana. Fetal cells are still being used in mice research using the old cell lines, he said, “but the faucet is being turned off.”
“We had very interesting results and then we got kneecapped,” Greene said. “His ruling was very short-sighted and damaging.”
The companies that made the drugs Trump took all received federal funding because they are part of Operation Warp Speed, the administration’s program to fast-track coronavirus drug and vaccine development. That was despite opposition from some religious groups and conservative leaders.
Greene said he doubts the president knew he was the beneficiary of cell lines evolved from fetal tissue even as he touted the monoclonal antibody cocktail as a “cure.”
“The irony is that Trump cut off fetal tissue research, but doesn’t realize that treatments derived from embryonic cells from fetal tissue played a pivotal role in a therapy that seems to have really, really helped him,” he said. “These antibodies that the president received are very promising therapeutics. I hold great hopes for these antibodies for people with infections and maybe even as a preventive. The challenge will be producing them to scale.”