The cell lines in the title all come from aborted fetuses. This presents an ethical quandary for those opposed to abortion. It seems straightforward to obtain new cell lines from sources other than abortions (mostly because I am terribly ignorant and naive about the difficulty of such a task). In particular, Catholic advocates assert that cells could be obtained from amniocentesis or miscarriage, which are an ethically suitable alternative.

It seems to me that Catholic advocates could themselves fund the production of such a new cell line and compete with the existing lines in the marketplace. Is this feasible or realistic? Was the creation of the most popular lines a particularly difficult or unique endeavour?

2 Answers 2


Different cell lines exist for different reasons, depending on the cell type and their properties they are useful for different experiments.

HEK-293 - Embryonic Stem Cells - Female

WI-38 - Fibroblasts derived from lung tissue - 3 month old female

MRC-5 - Fibroblasts derived from lung tissue - 14 week old male

Embryonic stem cells are totipotent, meaning they have the ability to differentiate into any other cell type.

Unfortunately to my knowledge we cannot yet generate totipotent cell lines. The cell line HEK-293 (or any embryonic stem cell line) are useful for studies that require the use of embryonic/totipotent stem cells.

The other cell lines - WI-38 & MRC-5 may be replaced by others quite easily however it may be the age of these cell lines that makes them attractive for scientific use. Scientists collaborate - when a cell line is able to 'do something' others may want to use it for their experiments too, and that is why particular cell lines are popular.

The ethical quandary of aborted fetus stem cells or stem cells sources from non-aborted fetuses. Yes it is possible to get a type of stem cell from E.g. Cord Blood (Blood from the umbilical cord of a baby) or Amniocentesis. But not embryonic/totipotent stem cells.

"The stem cells found in cord blood are often confused with embryonic stem cells - unlike embryonic stem cells, cord blood stem cells are all types of adult stem cells, are lineage restricted and are not pluripotent."

To avoid ethical concerns induced pluripotent stem cells (IPSCs) may be used. IPSCs have the ability to differentiate into almost any other cell type, it is easy to generate a large number of cells, they are great for modeling disease & have a huge transplantation potential. IPSCs are pluripotent, not totipotent. The image below outlines how IPSCs are generated, how they avoid ethical concerns and, IPSCs potential to be transplanted back into the patient. More information on how and why IPSCs were discovered can be found here.

How to generate IPSCs and their uses.

  • Would it not not be possible to harvest HEK-293-like cells from a naturally miscarried fetus? Or does the fact that it miscarried mean that those are undesirable cells to harvest? Jul 18, 2020 at 3:27
  • Interesting question - that would be a viable option. But I don't believe the parents would be likely to consent to the removal of foetus tissue due to their emotional state.
    – Andrew
    Jul 18, 2020 at 6:48

In addition to @Andrew's answer about technical limitations, consider that searching for "HEK-293" for example on Google Scholar returns over 120,000 results.

The thousands and thousands of studies using these cell lines provides an extensive institutional body of knowledge. There are many foundational studies done to understand these cell lines and there just isn't enough funding or motivation to redo them all. Cell lines are all unique, and any effort you make to create new ones have to create new research potential to be worth using.

  • The pro-life movement could conceivably fund an effort to produce a new cell line. The feasibility of this strategy is what motivated the question to begin with. But your comment suggests that it involves more than just creating a new cell line and selling it to labs at below-market rates. So that makes this an important bit of additional information. Jul 24, 2020 at 4:02
  • That is a great point - "Cell lines are all unique, and any effort you make to create new ones have to create new research potential to be worth using." Science is slow. Cell lined are created for a purpose which is outlined in a grant proposal. Grant proposals are written to government or private funding bodies so research can continue. How individual "Lab Heads" or "Principal Investigators" feel religiously will be unaffected... unless funding bodies are affiliated with, or promote their religious belief in their funding schemes.
    – Andrew
    Jul 24, 2020 at 7:17
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    I'll also provide an example. Here is an Australian Government body that funds biomedical and clinical research: nhmrc.gov.au/funding/manage-your-funding/funding-agreement . This Government body follows ethics statements like this one: nhmrc.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/reports/… which states small amount on religion.
    – Andrew
    Jul 24, 2020 at 7:27

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