Scientists at the University of Nebraska Medical Center are using brain cells from aborted human fetuses in research aimed at a better understanding of Alzheimer's disease.
Their studies, financed by the federal government, are the NU Medical Center's first venture into controversial research involving fetal tissue.
The tissue in the studies is provided by Dr. LeRoy H. Carhart, who operates the Bellevue-based Abortion & Contraception Clinic of Nebraska.
In response to questions from The World-Herald, Dr. William O. Berndt, vice chancellor of the Medical Center, said the research has been under way for several years.
He acknowledged that fetal-tissue research is controversial but said it is "a tremendous opportunity to bring a brighter future to people down the road."
"This is important stuff," Berndt said. "The history of science tells us the important stuff always has been controversial."
The studies have been reviewed by a Medical Center oversight committee and by the National Institutes of Health, he said, and are supported by more than $1 million a year in NIH grants.
For several years, the federal government had banned the use of federal funds to support research involving fetal tissue. The ban was lifted in 1993.
But the research has remained controversial among scientists, medical ethicists, policy-makers and the public. Often clashing are those who see possible benefits in using fetal tissue in medical research and those who think that life begins at conception and consider it wrong to use tissue from aborted fetuses.
In the case of the Medical Center's studies, Berndt said: "We are trying to understand the fundamental biology of human brain cells. How do they grow up and do what they do?"
This knowledge could help researchers determine what goes wrong in brain-affecting disorders such as Alzheimer's disease and might lead to new treatment.
Berndt declined to identify members of the Medical Center's research team. He said they were concerned about possible adverse public reaction.
Preliminary studies were started at the Medical Center in mid-1993, said Tom O'Connor, a spokesman.
Major studies started about two years ago when federal funding was approved. The studies are being done in conjunction with five other universities - Columbia, Harvard, Northwestern, Rochester (N.Y.) and Arizona.
As with the awarding of all federal grants, the NU Board of Regents was given a summary of the fetal brain-cell research, O'Connor said.
O'Connor said Carhart was appointed to an unpaid, volunteer faculty post in the department of pathology and microbiology, effective in October 1997.
"He has developed a method of isolating populations of brain cells that are used in the research," O'Connor said.
Women whose fetuses are used for research must agree to it and sign release forms, he said.
Carhart, who received his medical degree from Hahnemann Medical College in Philadelphia, is not paid for the fetal tissue that he supplies, O'Connor said.
Robert R. Blank, chairman of the board of Metro Right to Life, said it was "abhorrent and repulsive" that the Medical Center "would be using tax dollars to perform experimentation on aborted babies."
It is also repulsive, Blank said, that the Medical Center would have a man on its staff who primarily performs abortions.
Metro Right to Life is concerned whenever public money and public officials become involved with the abortion business, Blank said.
Berndt said Carhart does not teach at the Medical Center or perform abortions there.
Nor has the Medical Center changed its restrictive abortion policy, Berndt said. Elective abortions are not done.
Carhart said several women who had come to his clinic asked if fetal tissue couldn't be given to a university for research rather than disposed of in the medical waste incinerator.
"It's like donating organs," he said.
Carhart said he began providing tissue for research after President Clinton in 1993 gave his support to such studies. He said he has provided fetal tissue to the Medical Center for several years.
O'Connor said researchers believe it is important to use human fetal brain cells in their work. "They have tremendous regenerative capacity," he said. "They grow and differentiate and do many things that adult brain cells can't do."
By studying the brain cells, the scientists hope to find ways to prevent injury to the brain and to regenerate brain tissue that has been damaged by disease, he said.
The concept that the brain could be regenerated is fueling one of the hottest research fields.
Berndt said the Medical Center is not involved in another controversial type of research - that involving embryonic stem cells.
Since stem cells can develop into any type of body tissue, researchers hope to find a way to use them to treat Parkinson's disease, heart problems, juvenile diabetes and other disorders.
The primary sources of cells are surplus human embryos created in fertility clinics and aborted fetuses.