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Treating burn victims with fetal skin

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A team led by Dr. Patrick Hohlfeld, a professor of gynecology and obstetrics at the University Hospital of Lausanne, Switzerland, published the results of their study of skin grafts for the treatment of children's very serious burns. Their report appeared on the Internet on 2005-AUG-18. It will appear in a future edition of The Lancet, a British medical journal. 1

Physicians had previously observed that when operations are performed on a fetus before birth, the surgical wounds heal without leaving a scar. The Swiss team speculated that this unusual property of fetal skin might offer some advantages when used to treat burn victims.

The team appears to have made a major advance in the treatment of second and third degree burns. We have included this essay in our web site's morality section because pro-life groups are almost certain to raise moral objections to this new technique, since it uses grafts which can be traced back to a piece of skin removed from a fetus.

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How it works:

In conventional treatment of serious burns, a piece of skin is removed from the patient's body -- typically from their thigh -- and used to cover the wound. In this new study, a small patch of skin was removed from an aborted fetus, and grown in the laboratory. The result were sheets of artificial "bioengineered skin." The artificial skin patches were used in the place of the victim's own skin to cover the burns. Dr. Hohlfeld said: "The results were sort of unexpected. . . . These constructs seem to work as a biological Band-Aid, promoting spontaneous healing of the patient." 2 (The name "Band-Aid" is registered by Johnson and Johnson).

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Design of the study:

Physicians removed a small patch of skin approximately three quarters of an inch square (four square centimeters) from a 14 week fetus. 3 The pregnant woman "gave permission at the time of the abortion", 2 presumably long after having made the decision to terminate the pregnancy. At the time, the fetus would have been about 3 inches long. She had obtained an abortion for "medical-social" reasons. This piece of skin was first divided, and then "...seeded into a collagen 'construct'." The result were sheets of bioengineered skin sized about 3.5 by 4.7 inches (9 by 12 cm). These were used to treated eight children, aged 14 months to 9 years. All had deep second or third degree burns on their hands, feet, legs or buttocks as a result of contact with scalding water, fire or a hot iron. Treatment would normally have required skin grafting from the patients' own bodies. A new layer of artificial skin was placed over the wound every three or four days.

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Advantages of the technique:

There appear to be a number of advantages to the use of artificial skin derived from fetal skin cells:

bulletIt is not necessary to cut patches of the patient's own skin in order to create the grafts. This is a very painful procedure, both at the time of the procedure and afterwards during healing.
bulletWith the new treatment, there is no scar left behind on the patient's body where the graft would have been removed.
bullet"The scarring...seen after many burns did not occur" with the new treatment. 1
bullet"A main problem with healed but heavily scarred burns is that they contract, limiting the motion of joints. Grafts frequently leave an uneven contour on the skin surface. Neither of these problems occurred in the eight children, according to the report. There was 'total recovery of mobility, especially in hands and fingers'." 2
bulletWhen normal skin grafts are used, the patches bond with the patient's existing skin and the wound itself. These have to be periodically removed -- a procedure that is excruciatingly painful. The artificial grafts work differently. They do not bond with the existing skin. They either dissolve or change into a gel-like film over the wound. The latter is easily removed with far less pain. Hohlifeld said: "Not only did they heal, but it had a very good impact on the pain they were experiencing -- you need several dressing changes and usually you have to put them to sleep to do that -- and with this technique most of them didn't need it."
bulletThere is a possibility that the new technique could save lives:
bulletSince a general anesthetic is not usually required when the artificial grafts are replaced, the procedure is often much safer. There is a very small chance that a patient could die due to a reaction to the anesthetic.
bulletThere is a possibility that the new technique might increase the survival rates of seriously injured patients with third-degree burns over much of their body. Some patients experience serious complications because they do not have sufficient undamaged skin that can be harvested for grafts.
bulletUsing normal skin grafts, wound healing takes up to three months. With the artificial grafts, healing averaged two weeks.

Dr. Hohlfeld summarized the new technique: "We observed spontaneous healing of the wound, which you would never observe in normal conditions with a traditional graft...It wouldn't heal that way, it wouldn't heal that quickly; it would take months; and it wouldn't cover the whole surface."

Of course, much further work needs to be done before this technique becomes generally available.

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Disadvantages of the technique:

There appears to be one disadvantage to the new procedure: the skin used for grafts are grown from a small patch of skin removed from an aborted fetus. This essay is written before any reactions from pro-life groups have surfaced. But it is likely that very serious objections will be raised. We speculate that protests may come from two directions:

bulletIt would promote abortions: If a pregnant woman were struggling with the decision whether to have an abortion or not, the knowledge that skin harvested from her fetus would or might be used to help hundreds of thousands of seriously burned patients might sway her decision in favor of the abortion. Dr. Hohlfeld believes that this would never happen. He said: "It wouldn't be a question since we can prepare millions of constructs out of one skin biopsy...I understand the concern, but...there are pregnancy termination every day." One sample of skin from one fetus could treat 100,000 or more patients. The chances of a woman being asked for permission to obtain a skin biopsy would be vanishingly small. Of course, she would never be asked until after the abortion was performed.
bulletIt is a abhorrent procedure: To some, the idea of skinning a dead fetus triggers memories of Nazis making lampshades out of human skin during the Holocaust. (The lampshade atrocity might be a myth. 4)

However, the skin is an organ -- the body's largest organ. Physicians have been transplanting organs from dead bodies to living people for decades -- hearts, lungs, kidneys, cornea, etc. Other people have no objection to the procedure, particularly if a single skin biopsy can help hundreds of thousands of people -- and perhaps save the life of some.

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Reactions from pro-life groups:

bullet2005-AUG-18: LifeSiteNews.com posted a brief article on their web site titled "Abortion-derived skin from unborn babies used to treat burns." It said, in part,

"The use of aborted baby parts is not new. Body parts of aborted children are highly prized by researchers for a number of different experimental applications including for cosmetic testing. Mark Crutcher of Life Dynamics, the group that first exposed the practice, says that the abortion industry is developing new methods of killing children so that more of the body is preserved intact so the parts can be more readily re-sold to research firms. Crutcher told LifeSiteNews.com that the logic is inescapable. "Once you cross the line, where you see a child as a commodity, something you can remove if you have the money to do it, then this is a natural extension." 5

bullet2005-AUG-18: CovenantNews.com covered the story, under the title: "Skinning Dead Babies." They wrote, in part: "The researchers used the skin from a murdered unborn baby -- a 14-week male whose mother gave permission at the time of abortion." The article had a link to a brief summary of the study at Nurse101.com, which in turn had a link to the Washington Post article. 2 

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Reactions from medical experts:

bulletRoger W. Yurt, head of the burn center at Weill Cornell Medical Center, in New York City, NY said: "I can't say whether it's a leap forward before we know how it compares with standard wound care."
bulletRobert Sheridan, chief of burn medicine at Shriners Hospital for Children in Boston, MA said: "This is certainly work worth following with great eagerness. But in the absence of comparisons, it would be very difficult to assess the difference that the fetal cells bring." 2

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References used:

  1. Sheryl Ubelacker, "Fetal skin cells used to treat child burn victims," Canadian Press, The Toronto Star, 2005-AUG-18, Page A18.
  2. David Brown, "Fetal tissue heals burns: Tests show treatment led to normal skin regrowth," Washington Post, 2005-AUG-18, Page A02. Online at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/
  3. Various media reports state that the skin biopsy used either had an area of four square centimeters or was a 4 cm by 4 cm square. We have assumed that the former is correct.
  4. Cecil Adams, "Did the Nazis make lampshades out of human skin?," The Straight Dope, 2004-JUN-04, at: http://www.straightdope.com/
  5. "hw," "Abortion-Derived Skin From Unborn Babies Used to Treat Burns," LifeSiteNews.com, at: http://www.lifesite.net/

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Home page > "Hot topics" > Abortion > Ethics > here

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Copyright © 2005 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2005-AUG-18
Latest update: 2005-AUG-19
Author: B.A. Robinson

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