In the midst of a thriving career in the world of modern biotechnology, Theresa Deisher, Ph.D. got a rude awakening. She began to hear about the use of aborted fetal stemcell lines in vaccinations. She hoped it wasn’t true. When she found it was, she hoped she could bypass any involvement in using such cell lines. But she couldn’t see a way around it in her work environment.
With a Ph.D. in molecular and cellular physiology from Stanford University, Deisher held scientific and corporate leadership positions, creating human therapies through research, discovery, production, and commercialization.
She worked for 17 years for some of the best known biotech firms in the country, including Genentech, Repligen, ZymoGenetics, Immunex, and Amgen. For her efforts she had 23 patents issued in her name, including patents for adult stem-cell lines.
Deisher realized that the fetal cell lines were becoming the basis of not only vaccines but also drugs and therapies. “It is pervasive. New drugs going through the FDA are tainted with morally illicit materials,” she said.
From both a moral and a health perspective, Dr. Deisher knew something needed to happen. She kept saying to herself, “Somebody should do something about this!”
It gradually dawned on Deisher that she was that “somebody.” After spending hours before the Blessed Sacrament, she decided she wanted to create her own company. For her, it was “not just a business” to launch, but a vocation to create for herself.
“I just felt called to do it,” she said. “Abuses are so common. People of conscience either have to throw their faith into the garbage or actively stand up and take back our society.”
In 2008, AVM Biotechnology was founded in Seattle by Dr. Deisher and a small team of her fellow professionals. With the tagline, “At AVM, we know there is a better way,” she set out to find “better and safer ways to produce lifesaving medicines.”
Shortly thereafter, she created a non-profit corporation, Sound Choice Pharmaceutical Institute, which has a threefold purpose: to educate the public about the use of aborted human fetal material for drug discovery and production; to provide pro-life certification that medicines are safe and not contaminated with human fetal DNA; and to encourage the formation of biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies committed to producing medicines that are free of embryonic or electively aborted human material.
“We see it as God’s work, as God’s calling,” Deisher said. “It might seem easy to go back [and be a part of the establishment], but once your eyes are open to what’s happening, you can’t.” Deisher noted that “families are becoming increasingly concerned about how our medicines and health care treatments are being developed.”
A LONG CAMPAIGN
AVM has brought together leading scientists, business and community activists, and policy makers to address these bioethical issues. Debi Vinnedge, executive director of Children of God for Life—a non-profit, pro-life organization focused on the bioethical issues of human cloning and embryonic and fetal tissue research—refers to Dr. Deisher’s efforts as “an answer to prayer.”
Vinnedge recalled that in the fall of 1999, Children of God for Life (COG for Life) began “the Campaign for Ethical Vaccines in an effort to put an end to the use of aborted fetal cell lines in vaccines and medical products.” She reported that the organization was “laughed at, chastised, and basically told that it couldn’t be done. They told us we were wasting our time—the pharmaceutical industry would not change, would never listen.”
Then in June 2005, the Pontifical Academy for Life issued an important eightpage document, “Moral Reflections on Vaccines Prepared from Cells Derived from Aborted Human Fetuses,” which stated that “doctors and families have a duty to take recourse to alternative vaccines (if they exist), putting pressure on the political authorities and health systems so that other vaccines without moral problems become available.”
The document suggested Catholics express, if necessary, “conscientious objection with regard to the use of vaccines produced by means of cell lines of aborted human fetal origin …[opposing] the vaccines which do not yet have morally acceptable alternatives, creating pressure so that alternative vaccines are prepared…and requesting rigorous legal control of pharmaceutical industry producers.”
In 2006, the Catholic Medical Association added its voice in protesting the use of aborted human fetal cells and tissue by the pharmaceutical industry. In a formal resolution the organization stated that alternatives must be used.
Vinnedge said that, finally, “the gauntlet was dropped, the stage was set, and the challenge lay waiting to be accepted.” Enter Dr. Deisher in 2007 and her new corporation, AVM Biotechnology, which Vinnedge says has fulfilled the hopes of her organization and “millions of parents.”
One problem she sees is that “the general public is largely unaware of this issue.” Even though non-problematic alternatives for some vaccines are available, “unless families and physicians are given this information in advance of purchase,” the market for these vaccines “could be considerably smaller,” Deisher says.
To increase awareness, COG for Life has introduced legislation to members of Congress—the Fair Labeling and Informed Consent Act—“which would require full disclosure by the pharmaceutical industry whenever aborted fetal or embryonic material is used in any medical product,” Vinnedge noted. “Congress has stalled on our legislation for the past four years, even though there is strong support for what we are asking.”
AUTISM AND MORALLY TAINTED VACCINATIONS
Part of Dr. Deisher’s inspiration in starting AVM arises out of the debate concerning the increasing incidences of autism following childhood vaccinations.
She wrote recently that “the prevalence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) began rising dramatically in the United States after 1978, from less than four children per 10,000 up to approximately 68 children per 10,000 by the year 2000.” She noted: “A decade later, in 1988, the prevalence of ASD began rising in the United Kingdom.”
The assumption was that this sudden rise in both cases was due to “the introduction of a new measles-mumpsrubella vaccine (MMR II) in the US in 1978 followed by the introduction of this same new MMR version in the UK in 1988…[which] was so closely associated with the rises in ASD, that physicians speculated that the two events were related,” Deisher said. Some scientists suspected that the link between the introduction of the MMR II and autism was due to the live measles component of the vaccine, but subsequent studies seemed to rule that out.
The other broadly investigated autism- triggering suspect was the mercury (Thimerosal), added as a preservative in some vaccines. In 2004, the Institute of Medicine issued a report concluding that available data could find no link between the measles part of the MMR vaccine or the mercury additive and the development of autism. From this statement, it was concluded that vaccines, and particularly the MMR II vaccine, do not trigger autism in children receiving vaccinations.
But Deisher pointed out that “what was not considered in any studies done to date was an examination of the potential health consequences of having contaminating DNA from the producing cell line in the final vaccine product.” All biologic products, including vaccines—be they stem-cell lines from animals or from humans—contain contaminating DNA in the final product.
She explained that “the MMR II vaccine introduced in the US in 1978, and subsequently in the UK in 1988, was dramatically different from previous MMR vaccines because it was produced using cells derived from an aborted human fetus…[versus] earlier MMR vaccines produced using animal cell lines.” What hasn’t been studied “is the effect of human DNA contaminants on the developing neural (nervous) system of children, especially those who might already have a predisposition to autism,” she said.
On the website for the Autism Society of America, a June 2009 article quotes a recent study from Great Britain showing the incidence of autism continuing to rise. The research, led by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen of the Autism Research Center at Cambridge University, found that “for every three diagnosed cases of autism, there are two that are not diagnosed—meaning the true prevalence in the UK could be as high as one in 64.”
Autism Society of America President and CEO Lee Grossman stated: “We believe the incidence rates in the United States are approaching those in the United Kingdom.” In the United States, “current estimates place the prevalence of autism at one in 150.” The group has heard that many families are having difficulty getting diagnoses for their children, and that there are many autistic adults who have never been identified. “Reports from Indiana indicate the current rate of identification in students is one in 101, and does not include children who are home-schooled or educated in private institutions, according to the Indiana Resource Center for Autism,” the June 2009 article reports.
Primary concerns that Dr. Deisher hopes to focus on right now include bringing “commercially available, morally acceptable vaccines to the US market, using existing technology to produce other new morally certified vaccines.”
As she already has patents in her name from her many years working as a stem-cell scientist, she would like to “develop morally acceptable stemcell therapies to be used for regenerative medicine, beginning in the field of heart disease,” her specialty area, and other areas later.
She hopes to use the revenues from vaccines and regenerative medicine programs to fund the “discovery, development, and commercialization of morally certified therapeutics in fields particularly susceptible to ethical abuses, such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and infertility issues, among others.”
Finding the backing she needs to continue the work she has begun is the big issue right now for Deisher. But COG’s executive director believes AVM will find a lot of interest and support once the public is made aware of their work, and if Congress passes the COGproposed legislation.
“Who is going to buy a vaccine that might present a problem when there is one that is both morally produced and safe? Once we have the moral vaccines underway, there will be a huge push among the Catholic medical community to use the alternatives,” Vinnedge believes.
Dr. Deisher is hoping for the sort of investors “who are pro-life and don’t believe in taking shortcuts just to make money.” She added: “I am used to working in big companies, where money is not an issue. But now I rely on God, which is not always easy to do, but we have to!”
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