PHILADELPHIA — Luke Luna, a junior at Martin Saints Classical High School in Oreland, Pennsylvania, has issued a video urging support for an online drive benefiting the John Paul II Medical Research Institute in Coralville, Iowa.
Founded in 2006, the institute focuses on therapies and cures that use adult stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells — skin or blood cells that have been reprogrammed to an embryonic-like state.
The institute’s core research areas include cancer as well as neurological, chronic and rare diseases. Due to the pandemic, the institute has dedicated its 2021 “Campaign for Cures” to creating COVID-19 vaccines and therapies that do not rely on aborted fetal tissue and cell use in either the development or testing phases.
Donations to the campaign can be made online at https://www.jp2mri.org/donate-now.
Luna said he was inspired to join the institute’s initiative — which has a goal of $1 million — after receiving a school email explaining the Catholic Church’s position on COVID-19 vaccines and abortion.
The three vaccines approved for use in the U.S. — Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson’s Janssen –- all rely on abortion-derived cell lines, the first two in testing and the J&J vaccine throughout the development, testing and production stages.
In a December 2020 document, the U.S. bishops reiterated Catholic teaching on morally compromised vaccines, noting their use can be justified amid urgent health crises, a lack of available alternatives and a “remote” connection with the abortions from which their cell lines originated.
However, the bishops stressed “all Catholics and men and women of goodwill must continue to do what (they) can” to end the reliance on abortion-derived tissues in COVID-19 vaccines — and that call resonated with Luna.
“It made me ask, ‘What work is being done to ensure that we have an ethical vaccine?'” he told CatholicPhilly.com, the news website of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. “And it didn’t seem like anyone was doing anything.”
After reading the school email, “Luke came to his mother and I with a lot of questions,” said the teen’s father, Tony.
The family began researching the issue, and eventually learned about the John Paul II Medical Research Institute and its efforts.
“They had kicked off their campaign back in February, and had received tons of calls from people saying, ‘Are you doing this vaccine? How quickly can you get it to market?'” said Tony Luna.
As soon as the institute conducts “a critical amount of research,” it can “leverage to the next level,” said the institute’s vice president and scientific director, Dr. Alan Moy.
“The next step could then be additional private-public funding through government or private enterprises that would take it over, commercialize it and move it toward therapy,” he said.
Pursuing abortion-free vaccines and therapies “makes sense from economic, scientific and technical standpoints,” Moy said.
Fetal cell lines — such as the HEK293 line used in testing and production of several COVID vaccines, plus a wide array of other medicines — “are probably going to run out of steam” over the coming decades, said Moy.
“They’re 50 years old, and by today’s standards, the method to produce these cell lines is antiquated,” he said. “These cells survive, but they carry baggage because they were created so long ago.”
Regardless of their source, said Moy, each cell has “a finite shelf life” unless it is “genetically transformed” to grow indefinitely. Sometimes such transformation occurs naturally — as in the case of cancer cells that continue to multiply — but most of the time such cell immortalization requires human intervention.
Rather than “using viruses, chemical carcinogens and radiation … we now have much safer ways” to produce cell lines that would be “applicable and address unmet needs,” said Moy.
He and his colleagues at the institute want to “develop something disruptive and more advantageous … that ultimately pharmaceutical companies will adopt,” he said.
Luna said he hopes to move that plan forward by encouraging others to support the John Paul II Medical Research Institute.
“By donating today, you will not only be saving the lives of those at risk from COVID, but you will also be sending a loud and clear message,” he said. “You can save the lives of those in need while also respecting the dignity of human beings, especially the most vulnerable: the children in the womb.”
Christian is a senior content producer for CatholicPhilly.com, the news website of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.