MRC-5(Medical ResearchCouncil cell strain 5) is a diploid human cell culture line. It consists of fibroblastic cells originally derived from the lungs of a 14-week-old male fetus. This was aborted in September 1966 because of psychological problems by a 27-year-old, otherwise physically healthy mother in England. The MRC-5 cells do not have the ability to cause tumors and have a low frequency of chromosomal abnormalities.
The cell line was isolated by J.P. Jacobs and colleagues after the 7th cell division (PDL7). The cell line reaches senescence after approximately 45 to 60 Divisions. Since the original stock runs out after about 40 years and the integrity and sterility of the original glass ampoules are at risk, WHO has commissioned a second stock with a slightly increased doubling rate (PDL12).
MRC-5 cells have been used to produce several vaccines in recent years (MMR – in this case rubella, chickenpox, hepatitis A and rabies). Leonard Hayflick and Paul Moorhead discovered in the early 1960s that viruses needed for certain vaccines develop better in human stem cells in the laboratory than in animal tissue or live animals. The latter had often been used previously for production and cultivation, such as kidney cells previously used from monkeys. However, with that method of production from kidney tissue, it repeatedly happened that these also contained unwanted pathogens, whereas the cells originally obtained from the foetus enabled safe virus and thus also vaccine production.
Cultivation on MRC-5 cells works particularly well for rubella viruses, which are then included in the rubella vaccine in an attenuated form (for example, in Priorix or Priorix-Tetra). The viruses are purified for the vaccine and residues of the cell culture are removed, however, they can get into the vaccine as traces under certain circumstances. According to the PEI, these possible remnants of the cell line cultures are not ingredients but adjuvants in the production process, as they are not “deliberately added”. The Corona vaccine candidate AZD1222, on the other hand, is not produced using MRC-5 cells.
Today, mainly in addition to MRC-5, the WI-38 cell line, also derived from a fetus, is used for the development of a variety of vaccines. In both cases, however, the fetuses were not aborted for the purpose of extracting tissue from them for the cell lines. Moreover, these cell lines were taken from the fetuses once, after which they were continuously multiplied and frozen. There has been criticism, particularly from religious communities, that the MRC-5 cell line (and also WI-38) was derived from an aborted fetus. However, the Catholic Church, as well as other religious communities, see the production of such vaccines as justified in terms of their utility. In 2003, for example, the future Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger) had just praised the rubella vaccine. In a statement in 2017, the Pontifical Academy for Life also sees the use of such vaccines as justifiable.
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