By Caroline Song

A team of researchers at Duke University has sparked an ethical debate with one of their current projects: they remove kidneys from aborted human fetuses and implant them into rats so they can develop and become larger. It is the researchers’ hope that they will be able to grow the organs large enough to be viable for transplantation into humans.

One of the co-authors of the study, Eugene Gu, obtained human fetal kidneys from Stem Express, an institute dedicated to providing tissues from deceased adults and fetuses. The kidneys were then transplanted into rats that are devoid of an immune system in order to avoid an immunological response. One month after transplantation, the rats’ original kidneys are removed. The rats have survived an average of four months following the fetal organ transplantation. Gu believes that these transplanted kidneys could be used to test medications and treatments that are not fit for human testing. He also believes that the organs can be grown to be large enough for transplantation in human patients; however, in order for this to work, Gu believes that the fetal kidneys need to be transplanted into a larger animal, such as a pig, to be able to grow to the proper size.

This research raises many ethical questions concerning the use of fetal organs in research. Hank Greely, an ethical and legal expert on biomedical science at Stanford Law School states that the women must decide on having an abortion prior to being asked if they are willing to donate the fetal tissue for research. It should be noted that Stem Express has stated that all donors gave consent did not receive any benefits from their donation. Greely also believes that there is some discomfiture that accompanies the implantation of human tissue into nonhuman animals. Arthur Caplan, a Bioethicist at NYU’s Lagone Medical Center, believes that the largest problem that exists with Gu’s research is that the American public will never support the use of fetal remains for organ transplantation. Gu hopes that Caplan is wrong, and suggests that the organs grown from their research could be primarily used for neonatal and fetal patients, for whom there is a major shortage of organs.

The study conducted by Gu did not receive any federal, state, or local funding.

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