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Frank Bures: Fetal cell lines essential to modern medicine

From the COLLECTION: Recent Healthful Hints columns by Dr. Bures series
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Whether COVID-19 vaccines contain fetal cells or products was extensively discussed in a recent Hint. The quick answer was no. But the use of fetal cell lines (FCL) in medicines’ research and development and/or production and manufacturing is a much broader subject than you, or I, can imagine. We’ll take a short look into a few of the associations of FCL.

To recap, the 2 mRNA Pfizer and Moderna vaccines an old FCL (begun in 1973) in testing. It is called HEK-293, derived from human embryonic kidney cells. It is likely the FCL most widely used in research etc. Another labeled PER.C6 from 1985 embryonic retinal cell tissue was used in the production of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine. A practicing Catholic physician wrote in an Aug. 18, 2021, article for Nebraska Medicine that these cells were collected generations ago and have been multiplied innumerable times into the current ones, which “are thousands of generations removed from the original fetal tissue”

Someone cited in another forum a Jan. 28, 2021, article from the online magazine Patheos, “for credible and balanced information about religion” (its own description) by Fr. Matthew Schneider, LC entitled “If Any Drug Tested on HEK-293 Is Immoral, Goodbye Modern Medicine.” His discussion showed the pervasiveness of just HEK-293’s use in testing medicines, not just vaccines. Here we’ll list the list medicines, not the ethical points.

He says there “are 66,000 published studies using HEK-293 and its derivative cell lines. Other drugs may be tested using (an FCL named) PER.C6, WI (Wistar Institute)38 (from 1961), and MRC (Medical Research Council) 5. ... Thanks to Dr. Lisa Gilbert, M.D. for pointing me in this direction and sharing her research on the topic. She says, ‘Every medication I’ve researched so far appears to have some connection to HEK.’”

The writer lists some, not all, common, over-the-counter medicines tested on the HEK cell line (generic name, use/brand):

  • Acetaminophen/Tylenol;
  • Ibuprofen/Advil/Motrin;
  • Naproxen/Aleve;
  • Pseudoephedrine/Sudafed;
  • Aspirin;
  • Diphe
  • nhydramine/Benadryl;
  • Loratadine/Claritin;
  • Dextromethorphan/Robitussin;
  • Guaifenesin/Mucinex;
  • Calcium carbonate/Tums;
  • Maalox;
  • Docusate/Colace (stool softener);
  • Senna (laxative);
  • Pepto-Bismol for upset stomach;
  • Phenylephrine (decongestant);
  • Pyrilamine (antihistamine);
  • Lidocaine (topical anesthetic)/Lidoderm/Recticare.
  • Here are the writer’s prescription medicines (listed generic name/brand):
  • Levothyroxine (for low thyroid)/Synthroid;
  • Atorvastatin (for cholesterol)/Lipitor;
  • Amlodipine (for blood pressure)/Norvasc;
  • Metoprolol (f
  • or blood pressure)/Lopressor;
  • Losartan (for blood pressure)/Cozaar;
  • Omeprazole (antacid)/Prilosec;
  • Albuterol (for asthma)/Salbutamol;
  • Sacubitril/Entresto;
  • Tenapor (for IBS)/Ibsrela;
  • Etanercept/Enbrel;
  • Azithromycin, antibiotic/Zithromax;
  • Hydroxychloroquin (not for COVID)/Plaquenil;
  • Remdesivir/Veklury;
  • Dapagliflozin/Jardiance (as seen on TV?);
  • Ivermectin (not for COVID, antiparasitic)/Stromectal;
  • Canagliflozin/Invokana;
  • Metformin (diabetes)/Glucophage;
  • Cerivastatin (cholesterol)/many brands;
  • Simvastatin (cholesterol)/Zocor;
  • Voxelotor (sickle cell disease)/Oxbryta;
  • Linisopril (for blood pressure)/Zestril.

And that ain’t all!

The only drug on which Fr. Schneider could not find any testing done using HEK was simethicone, which breaks up bowel gas (brand name Wind-eze — wish I had thought of that name). He also mentions HEK is used in basic drug research to ferret out adverse effects and develop new medicines, and allows safety and efficacy to be established. He said he “will take a Tylenol if needed”.

In another Nov. 14, 2020, article in an online publication by Stephanie Hauer in Rehumanize International (a nonprofit human rights organization opposing all forms of aggressive violence), she discussed the use of FCL not only in medicine, but also in the food and cosmetic industries. “In the food and beverage industry, biotech company Senomyx uses the cell line HEK-293 for research and development of new flavor additives. To be clear, they are not adding fetal cells into food or beverages.” The pharmaceutical company Neocutis has used FCL in their skin rejuvenation products. And there is more.

The reasons not to use cells cultured from other species comes from scientific experience. They don’t divide as reliably, have to be “prepared” each time from rodents or monkeys, may carry those species’ diseases and infect humans with them, etc. For example, a polio vaccine made in monkey cells transmitted the simian virus 40 with the inoculation. It proved not harmful.

The ethical/religious/moral discussions are part of a medical narrative here. But we need to recognize our intimate involvement with FCL medically. My only hope is reading the above material has not left you curled up “in the fetal position.”

Dr. Bures, a semi-retired dermatologist, since 1978 has worked Winona, La Crosse, Viroqua, and Red Wing. He also plays clarinet in the Winona Municipal Band and a couple dixieland groups. And he does enjoy a good pun.


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