A culture of consent : Nature News & Comment
A culture of consent
More than 50 years after the WI-38 cell line was derived from a fetus, science and society has still to get to grips with the ethical issues of using human tissue in research.
That story describes the development of the famous HeLa cell line, grown from cancer tissue taken from a poor black woman without her consent, and brilliantly recorded by Rebecca Skloot in her best-seller The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Crown, 2010). But it also neatly summarizes a separate tale that has echoes of the HeLa case and raises many of the same ethical questions of consent and obligation. Until now, that story has failed to reach the broad audience it deserves.
The cell line in this case is called WI-38, in which the initials represent the Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where the early work was done. WI-38 has arguably had an even bigger impact on science and medicine than the HeLa line. Whereas HeLa cells are cancerous, WI-38 cells are healthy and normal. They have been widely used for the production of virus vaccines given to many people worldwide — against rubella, for instance — and in research as a prototypical normal human cell.
As the News Feature on page 422 reports, the WI-38 cells came from a legally aborted fetus. More than half a century ago, a Swedish woman had her pregnancy terminated and the WI-38 cells were grown from tissue samples taken from the lungs of the fetus. That makes some people uncomfortable, but fetal tissue remains a useful and common tool in medicine today. In addition to its use in vaccine production, it has been used to make drugs against rheumatoid arthritis and cystic fibrosis. Therapies using cells derived from fetuses are being developed to treat haemophilia and to help patients on chemotherapy fight off infection.