I used to work for a biotech company that used fetal remains in its research. It took me more than two years to realize what was going on. No one mentioned it in my interview, and no one said anything about it after I started working there. The company's structure was split between the big brains and the hands, and I was just one of the hands — a molecular biologist with a very specific skill set, for a pointed purpose. Other scientists used my work for their studies. It was easy for me not to know what the big brains were doing in their fiefdom.
It took a bomb threat to wake me up.
One spring day, alerted by fire alarms and PA announcements, 200 employees fled to the parking lots. There was real fear and panic as we asked, "Is there a fire?" "What's going on?" "Chemical?" until the reason — "bomb threat" — snaked its way through the group.
"Bomb threat?" I asked. "For what?" My colleagues didn't know, or wouldn't discuss it. I was bewildered.
But soon enough, executives addressed us, outside in the daylight: Someone had called to say that there was a bomb on site because we worked with aborted fetuses. The threat was being taken seriously. Dogs and the bomb squad were on their way.
And with that I was made aware of the source of one of my company's most useful research tools: fetal liver stem cells. How had I not put it together before?
I ended up working at the company for a decade. I never was completely comfortable with our use of fetal tissue, and I could sense my colleagues weren't, either — the culture of silence around the remains continued, even after the bomb threat. But now, years after I left, and as Planned Parenthood is under fire for how it provides organs from aborted fetuses to research companies, I see that using these cells is a necessary evil, contributing to medical research that could save millions of lives. If I had the opportunity to work with fetal cells again, I would.
At first, the fetal tissue dilemma didn't affect me directly
It was the ‘90s, and the company was at the cutting edge of stem cell biology's potential to solve some of our most intractable medical problems: ALS, HIV, cancer, Parkinson's, diabetes, Alzheimer's, even aging itself. It was a thrilling time: the end of a century, an exponential outburst in the biotech's uses and usefulness, the awe of the Human Genome Project, the untapped promise of gene therapy, the dot-com boom. And with this job, I landed smack in the middle of it all. I was ecstatic to be at a great company, and to be a spoke in a wheel on a meaningful journey.
When I first found out the company used fetal tissue, I was disturbed, but the fact felt distant — something that didn't touch me directly, something to misplace in the greater scheme of doing good works. I didn't use the fetal tissue in my own work — I worked with other cell lines and adult immune stem cells.
I use the word "baby" purposely — it was all I thought about on my trips to tissue processing
My misgivings simmered under the surface: Then, as now, I hope we will reach the point when abortions are rare because of medical advancement, early and enduring sex education, and easy access to long-acting birth control. And in that specific, future, fairy tale case, no research cause would be worth acquiring or generating fetal tissue. It is morally reprehensible for abortions to be performed, coerced, or bought specifically for research.
I also had personal, practical concerns with what my company was doing. I worried about my safety — I worried that the next bomb threat wouldn't be a threat at all, but very real; I analyzed my personal, internal views on abortion and, as a man, set them aside in favor of women's choice and health.
But mostly I compartmentalized, an easy thing in my 20s.
But I couldn't avoid working with fetal cells forever
Eventually, though, this aspect of the company's work started to affect me directly. A few years after that first bomb threat I, alone at the company, was given one of the great quests in the biotech field: to find a way to keep stem cells young, healthy, and multiplying in the lab.
Although the politics and bioethics of using fetal tissue in medical research can be contentious and complicated, the biological reasoning is simple. The tissues, organs, and systems of the human body replenish from their own, dedicated source of stem cells — blood, skin, immune system, heart, muscle. If a scientist wants to study an organ or system — in particular if she wants to repair or replace it — stem cells are where it's at. Heart attack: heart stem cells. ALS: neural stem cells. Blood cancers: blood stem cells.
Studies like this one have shown that the younger the stem cells, the better they do their rejuvenating job. That's what makes fetal tissue so valuable — it provides doctors and scientists with extremely young stem cells.
The ultimate goal of my new project — discovering a way to make young stem cells — required the use of fetal cells themselves. You can see my Gordian Knot: Use babies' cells so we don't have to use babies' cells anymore.
I use the word "baby" purposely, as it was all I thought about on my regular trips to tissue processing. This was where a specific tech — a young woman, actually — prepared cells from fetal tissue for my use. It was a long walk. The processing area had its own faraway place, in the basement, where this employee worked alone. I think this was deliberate, in part, a way for the company to compartmentalize its own ethical views of fetal tissue into a small, isolated place.
This compartmentalization was probably good for employees' mental health — one doesn't drop fetal tissue willy-nilly around a company without problems — as well as for the tissue tech's safety, privacy, anonymity, and as much peace of mind as they could give her. It's a job I could never, ever do, but one that's necessary if you believe in the work. I don't know how she dealt, or what she thought about her job. Our relationship was transactional; we rarely chatted.
How I — and the rest of the industry — coped
So with all my reservations and queasiness, how did I cope? I did the job I was supposed to do. I worked really hard for a solution that would negate the need for fetal tissue. I reduced my thoughts down to the cell, not where the cells came from. I volunteered often to work on the breast cancer clinical trial the company was working on. I lived well outside of work. I didn't discuss my reservations, ever.
I suspect that's how my colleagues dealt with their own issues. Not to talk about it; definitely not at work. We didn't bring it up. "See no evil. Speak no evil. Do no evil." We worked at a company that was fighting HIV, curing a set of cancers, solving gene therapy, enhancing transplants. It was exciting, newsworthy, innovative. That was the focus. No one was advocating aloud for fetal tissue research, or its potential as a cure. Everyone drank the Kool-Aid.
And for good reason: All of this work, with all of its complications, laid the groundwork for a tremendously successful clinical trial. Our scientists used a breast cancer patient's own purified blood stem cells as a disease-free source for immune system replacement after extra intensive chemotherapy. Four years ago, the company's primary founder summarized the results in an interview: "33 percent of the patients that received the cancer-free stem cells are alive today, 14 years later. These were stage IV metastatic breast cancer patients. For those patients at the same center that received mobilized peripheral blood (where at least 40 percent of the isolates contain massive amounts of cancer cells), only 6 percent were still alive without disease after 2 years."
I did the job I was supposed to do. I worked hard for a solution that would negate the need for fetal tissue.
Although this trial did not use fetal stem cells, fetal stem cells were fundamental to its genesis. All these years later, it's amazing to discover the good we did for women suffering from breast cancer.
Grand purpose, however, is not a "by any means necessary" argument made by researchers and companies who use fetal tissue. I think the industry's view is that because abortions are so common, there is an abundance of fetal tissue, and it's better to use it to save lives than to throw it in the trash.
But the industry is clearly ambivalent about using fetal remains. A good deal of effort goes into finding and using alternatives, like ethically unambiguous cord blood or reprogrammed stem cells, or, my old work, cultivating stem cells. These are not, and were not, half-assed efforts. Scientists are conscious of what they do.
Even in the face of multiple bomb threats, the company hunkered down, battened down the hatches, went quiet. After each threat, there was a companywide meeting with a bigwig or two where our good work on adult stem cells was emphasized, where we were advised not to talk to the press, where everyone left quietly to go back to business as usual. No one I knew ever quit in the face of threats related to our work. Even with all the moral questions surrounding it, it seemed we were willing to sacrifice ourselves, or at least our psyches, for the welfare of future generations.
Why I'd make the "devil deal" again
After 10 years on the job, I left biotech for the finance industry. I eventually quit that, too, and now I'm a writer. I've contemplated whether I would work with fetal cells again, if I had the chance. Knowing all these years later that there are women still alive on Earth because of our work — devil deal and all — I now know surely I would. Knowing that I helped save lives is the most amazing feeling. I haven't felt anything like it in quite a long time. I'm sure it's the force that drives researchers to do what they do.
I felt then, as now, that I was a soldier on the front line in science's war against dreaded diseases. For as long we live in a time when abortion isn't rare and in its wake there's useful material created that can save lives, then I believe it's essential we use it. Definitely.
Madison Kilpatrick III has a bachelor's degree in biology and was a PhD candidate in developmental biology, before leaving to work in the biotechnology industry. He now writes about science, futurism, finance, and politics. He's on Twitter @madikilpatrick.