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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Fetal Tissue FAQs

What is fetal tissue research?

Research using human fetal tissue (including cells/cell lines) directly and uniquely contributes to the study of human health and an understanding of a host of illnesses and conditions.  Many researchers study impacts of drugs, therapies, and other treatments in mice treated with human cells and organs prior to use in human patients.

What is fetal tissue used to study?

Fetal tissue is used to study:

  • Neurodegenerative disorders including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, ALS
  • Different types of cancer, including leukemias
  • Neurological disorders including epilepsy and Down syndrome
  • Human development and birth defects
  • Human specific aspects of the immune system, immune disorders, and infectious disease
  • Heart disease and heart failure
  • Diabetes
  • Asthma and allergies
  • Vaccine development
  • Organ transplantation
  • Emerging diseases and conditions, such as Zika virus

How does fetal tissue differ from other research?

Fetal tissue and cells are different from other kinds of cells commonly used in research and scientists use them to study aspects of human biology they cannot with other cells.  UW–Madison requires review of research involving human fetal tissue.

Many researchers also study the impacts of drugs, therapies, and other treatments by using mice treated with human fetal cells and organs prior to their use in human patients. This allows them to recreate human-like physiology in mice and keep patients safe from the often-unknown side effects of experimental drugs and treatments.


Fetal tissue: Composed of the specialized cells that make up developing organs.

Adult stem cells: Found in many organs in the human body where they can form and replenish the various specialized cell types in a particular organ.  They have a limited capacity to grow and divide and may be difficult to isolate.

Embryonic stem cells: Obtained from excess embryos created for in vitro fertilization and donated for research.  These cells are capable of growing and dividing indefinitely and have the ability to become any cell type found in the human body.

Induced pluripotent stem cells: These cells are generated by reprogramming cells from adult tissue, such as skin cells, to mimic embryonic stem cells.