Fact check: Trump's antibody therapy not made from fetal stem cells but fetal-derived cells used during testing

The claim: the received antibody cocktail Trump is made from fetal stem cells
Since President Donald Trump's COVID-19 diagnosis and hospitalization, health professionals have raised concerns about his comprehensive medical regime, which includes the steroid dexamethasone and Gilead's remdesivir. One treatment in particular, an experimental antibody drug from Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, has been criticized on social media.
"So it turns out that the monoclonal antibodies on which Trump is active come from fetal stem cells. So Trump is treated / rescued with dead babies," said a Twitter post in the Facebook group Dogs for Democracy was published.
The tweet continues to call out on Republicans, Supreme Court candidate Amy Coney Barrett, and anti-abortion activists.
Fact or fiction: we review the messages and send them to your inbox. Sign up to get this.
A follow-up tweet with a link to Regeneron's official position paper on stem cell research serves as evidence for the claim.
While the Facebook post sharing the tweet didn't get any notable attention on the platform, it went viral on Twitter and received more than 347,000 likes and 107,000 retweets. Similar tweets have also gone viral, including one from Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif.
USA TODAY has asked the administrators of the Facebook group Dogs for Democracy for further comments.
What is Regeneron's antibody cocktail?
When a foreign pathogen enters the human body - be it a bacterium, a virus, a fungus or a parasite - Y-shaped proteins, so-called antibodies, are produced. They circulate through the body to bind and alert other immune chemicals and cells to destroy the pathogen, much like a search and destroy system.
Antibodies form the basis for an "adaptive" immunity, as they are genetically engineered in a certain sense by the body in order to recognize certain pathogens. This genetic engineering takes place in white blood cells called B cells, which make and display proteins on the cell surface by rearranging genes like a series of numbers to form different sequences or patterns.
Since this rearrangement is random, it is impossible to predict what kind of specificity an antibody will have or whether it will be biologically useful. Only when a B cell encounters the right pathogen at the right time does it activate and secrete its tailor-made antibody. The activated B-cell also clones itself through a process called clonal expansion. This helps build an effective immune response by creating large amounts of antibody and memory B cells (B cells that remember the encounter for future run-ins). as well as the activation of other immune cells.
Regeneron's experimental antibody "Cocktail", known as REGN-COV2, is a combination of two monoclonal antibodies (monoclonal based on a specific B-cell clone). These antibodies, REGN10933 and REGN10987, are designed to bind to the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein and prevent it from interacting with its target on the surface of the host cell, the ACE2 receptor.
REGN-COV2 began its first clinical trial in June and is currently in four late-stage clinical trials that will recruit a total of at least 11,000 participants, according to genetic engineering and biotechnology news.
Antibody therapy has so far shown that it can reduce the SARS-CoV-2 viral load and disease in experiments with golden hamsters and rhesus monkeys. The results presented last month from Regeneron's preliminary tests on non-hospitalized, SARS-CoV-2 positive patients - from asymptomatic to moderate cases - also showed a reduced viral load. However, more studies are needed to see how effective REGN-COV2 will be.
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Plasma cells producing antibodies that attack the coronavirus.
A misinterpreted statement
Regeneron's Alexandra Bowie told news aggregation platform Heavy in an October email that REGN-COV2 was not made with human embryonic stem cells.
"This particular discovery program (REGN-COV2) did not involve human stem cells or ESCs," wrote Bowie.
The statement posted on Twitter is merely Regeneron's official position on stem cell research in general and is in no way associated with or in any way explaining how REGN-COV2 is made. Bowie confirmed this with Heavy too.
It's unclear why Regeneron released an official statement in April. In an e-mail to USA TODAY, Bowie did not clarify the point in time, only pointed out that this is common practice at pharmaceutical companies and that Regeneron strives for transparency.
"Like many biopharmaceutical companies that do scientific research (see, for example, Pfizer, J&J), we have a general opinion on the use of stem cells," Bowie said. "We share this and similar statements in the interests of transparency and to educate people about the steps we are taking to conduct our business responsibly."
While the REGN-COV monoclonal antibodies appear to be from a B cell line isolated from a human donor who has recovered from SARS-CoV-2 and from an immunized mouse that has a human immune system, the US did TODAY a fetus-derived cell noted line mentioned in Regeneron's early research.
In supplementary material to an article published in Science in June, HEK293T cells - an immortalized epithelial cell line (cells that are not normally immortal, but have been modified by spontaneous mutation or in the laboratory) from embryonic kidney cells obtained in 1972 described as "briefly" used to generate SARS-CoV-2-like virus particles to test mouse and human-derived antibodies against.
Bowie confirmed that HEK293T cells were used but did not repeat stem cells.
"This particular discovery program (REGN-COV2) did not involve human stem cells or ESCs," she wrote. "The 293T cell line was originally derived from human embryonic kidney cells, but is an immortalized epithelial cell - not a stem cell. These cells were transfected and used to create a 'pseudoparticle' that mimicked the virus' spike protein and made it possible for us to do so." Test the neutralization ability of our antibodies against the virus. "
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Our rating: wrong
We rate this claim as FALSE as it is not supported by our research. The experimental antibody therapy that Trump received was not made directly from fetal or embryonic stem cells, but from antibodies obtained from human SARS-CoV-2 survivors and immunized mice engineered with a human immune system. Regeneron's official statement released in April, cited on Twitter as the basis for the claim, is a general position on stem cell research and has nothing to do with the actual conduct of antibody therapy. However, an embryo-derived cell line, albeit not a stem cell, appears to have been involved, at least in the early stages of the Regeneron testing process, according to supplementary material published in June. The HEK293T cells used are an immortalized cell line that comes from embryonic kidney cells, but are not stem cells themselves.
Our fact-checking sources:
CNBC, Oct. 5, "Doctors fear coronavirus" over-treatment "Trump for being a VIP."
Rep. Ted Lieu, Oct. 6, Twitter thread
The Guardian, Oct. 1, "Revealed: Amy Coney Barrett Supported Group Who Said Life Begins With Fertilization"
LiveScience, Jul 17, "What are Antibodies?"
British Society for Immunology, "Generation of B-Cell / Antibody Diversity".
Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News, Oct 5, "Trump's Treatments: Regeneron's Antibodies and Gilead's Remdesivir Explained"
Science, Oct. 5, "Update: Here's What Is Known About Trump's COVID-19 Treatment"
bioRxiv, August 3rd, "REGN-COV2 antibody cocktail prevents and treats SARS-CoV-2 infections in rhesus monkeys and hamsters"
Regeneron, Sept. 29, "Regeneron's REGN-COV2 antibody cocktail reduced virus levels and improved symptoms in non-hospitalized COVID-19 patients."
Heavy, October 6, "Trump's Regeneron Monoclonal Antibody Treatment Was Not Performed on Human Fetal Stem Cells"
Alexandra Bowie, October 7th, email USA TODAY
Science, June 15, "Supplementary materials for studies in humanized mice and convalescents result in a SARS-CoV-2 antibody cocktail"
Science, June 5, "Anti-Abortion Opponents Protest Use of Fetal Cells by COVID-19 Vaccines."
Johns Hopkins Medicine, "Henrietta's Legacy Is Missing"
USA TODAY, Oct. 1st, "Supreme Court Candidate Amy Barrett signed an anti-abortion letter that was attached to the ad asking her to overthrow Roe v. Wade."
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This article originally appeared in the US TODAY: Fact Check: Trump's Antibody Therapy Not Made From Fetal Stem Cells

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