One of our colleagues, a doctor in Molecular Biology who is currently conducting post-doctoral research in the United States, mentioned to us that he had “recently discovered that the cells with which he was working come from human embryos, the famous HEK-293 cells”. He continued by saying that for the moment, he had objected to working with them and was not using them, so he asked if morally he could, given that for his future research career, it would be a major hindrance if he decided not to do so. In this respect, he asked us about the position of the Magisterium of the Church on this matter. The truth is that this is a complex medical problem. Nevertheless, in autumn 2006, an extensive article by Alvin Wong was published in the National Catholic Quarterly (6.3: 473-495, 2006), which referred to the ethical aspects related with the use of HEK-293 embryonic cell lines (obtained from stored embryonic stem cells) . According to Wong, the question that must be answered is how the original embryonic cells were obtained: from an induced abortion, a natural miscarriage or from an embryo generated by assisted reproduction techniques, since in his opinion, this objectively influences the moral assessment of the use of these cells. Upon asking those responsible for distributing these cell lines about how they were obtained, says Wong, he was told that they did not know who was ultimately responsible for their production, and they recommended that he consult the current depositor, F.L. Graham of McMaster University, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Graham answered that he too was unable to determine the origin of the HEK-293 cell line, but that it could be ruled out that they came from embryos left over from in-vitro fertilisation, as these cells were produced in 1973, five years before the first child born as a result of assisted procreation techniques. After an interesting discussion, the author concluded that “it seems more likely that the tissue used to produce these cell lines would be from an induced abortion”. Consequently, Wong states that at this time, we cannot have moral certainty about the source of the HEK-293 cells, nor is there verifiable information on the moral licitness of the source used for their production. He also states that the moral obligation would be for those who store and distribute the HEK-293 cells to confirm that the cells were obtained by a morally licit method. Regardless of this though, Wong believes that we can likely assume that the HEK-293 cell lines were obtained from an aborted embryo. From an ethical point of view, after an extensive evaluation of all the circumstances related with the use of these cell lines, Wong concludes that if he has correctly researched the origin of the HEK-293 cell line, the morality of their use for an investigator who wants to use them is highly questionable.
“There is, in my opinion,” says Wong, “a moral duty on the part of any researcher to discontinue using this cell line; that moral duty should be particularly clear to Catholic researchers and institutions. Even if it may be extremely difficult to modify or stop the experiments in process, an immediate cessation of the use of the cell line is the correct and just action to take”.
As we said at the beginning, this is certainly an ethical problem that does not have an easy solution for Catholic researchers, but in our opinion, which coincides with that of Alvin Wong, we believe that it is safer to wander the paths that the Magisterium of the Church indicates as licit, than to do so along the unstable frontier line where we cannot make a completely certain ethical judgment.
Director del Science Institute of Life UCV
Member of the Pontifical Academy for Life