FARGO — The use of fetal cells obtained from aborted fetuses in the development of some COVID-19 vaccines raises a concern for some: Is it ethical to receive such a vaccine?
Fetal cells have been used to develop a variety of vaccines over the years to prevent infectious diseases including hepatitis A, rubella and rabies.
More recently, awareness that the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine was developed with fetal cells derived from aborted fetuses decades ago has prompted some churches to issue moral guidance for their followers.
A new Fargo biotechnology company, Agathos Biologics, is dedicated to developing cell lines that are free of any ethical concerns for use in vaccines and therapies.
“Our motivation in establishing Agathos was to address that,” James Brown, the company’s chief executive officer, said of the moral concerns involving some cell lines used to develop vaccines and other drugs.
Although concerned about the moral implications of cell lines, Agathos' primary goal is to develop cell lines that perform at the highest level, said Brown, a scientist and veteran of the biotechnology industry.
“We want to develop technologies that are superior alternatives to what’s out there that also are ethically sourced,” he said. Employees aren’t screened for their moral beliefs but for their scientific credentials, Brown said.
“We don’t have any litmus test,” he said. “There’s no political motivation whatsoever. We want people who want to do good science.”
Agathos — which takes its name from the Greek word for good — has ties to Aldevron, the firm based in Fargo that manufactures DNA, enzymes and other custom materials for the biotechnology and biopharmaceutical industries.
Until he left to devote full-time to Agathos on Jan. 1, Brown held senior roles at Aldevron, serving as president of its research-grade nucleic acids business unit and chief of staff and vice president for corporate development.
His fellow investors in the enterprise are Michael Chambers, Aldevron’s executive chairman, and John Ballantyne, Aldevron’s chief scientific officer. Chambers and Ballantyne are Aldevron’s co-founders.
Last week, Agathos gained its second employee: Jagadish Loganathan, who did postdoctoral research at North Dakota State University and specializes in cellular and molecular biology. His role is director of research and development.
Working in the industry provides researchers the opportunity to put their work to productive use, Loganathan said.
“You can see the output of your research knowledge,” he said. “You can see the benefits. It's a transformation of knowledge from the academy to industries.”
By the end of the year, Agathos hopes to have five employees on board, working to develop new cell lines for vaccines and therapeutic drugs using cell therapy and gene therapy.
One of the early cell lines in the pipeline was derived from an insect and already has been used, giving it a regulatory history that should help speed development, Brown said.
In its initial phases, Agathos will focus on research and development but also is open to partnerships with other companies and plans to license its cell lines.
“We’re talking to people who are in the cell development line,” Brown said.
Before joining Aldevron, Brown was vice president of technical operations for REGENXBIO, a biotechnology company based in Washington, D.C., involved in gene therapy work.
In talking to others involved in cell and gene therapy research, Brown discovered that others share his ethical concerns about the origins of some cell lines.
“There’s a shared concern and desire to do something about it,” he said. “You start to bring this up and people start coming out of the woodwork. I think there are a lot of researchers who struggle with this.
“We’re not here to criticize what’s been done,” Brown added, noting the cell lines produced vaccines and therapies that helped many people. “These things have produced effective drugs, there’s no question about it.”
Still, there are opportunities to provide cell lines that will be the foundation for new vaccines and therapeutic drugs that don’t come with the ethical quandaries, Brown said. “That’s the challenge we’re up for.”
The publicity over the use of cells derived from fetuses aborted decades ago that were used in developing the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine has brought the issue to the forefront, Brown said.
“I think people are becoming more aware of these issues,” he said. “Ultimately, we want to make drugs that are ethical from beginning to end and can help people. There’s a lot of growth in the area, a lot of opportunities.”