US government scientists will no longer conduct research using foetal tissue, the Trump administration has announced, granting the wishes of anti-abortion groups and overruling the concerns of scientists. According to a Stat News report, the Department of Health and Human Services said it has discontinued all internal research that involves foetal tissue, which is obtained through elective abortions. External foetal-tissue projects that receive government funding will continue, but any grant application that is either new or up for renewal will require the approval of an ethics advisory board, the department said.
“Promoting the dignity of human life from conception to natural death is one of the very top priorities of President Trump’s administration,” HHS said.
The report says foetal tissue has been used for a wide variety of research in the US dating back to the 1930s, including the development of several vaccines and studies of genetic diseases. There have long been strict rules around how it can be procured and used.
The report says HHS’ decision is a victory for anti-abortion activists, who have decried the use of foetal tissue in research as unethical. But scientists have defended its use, pointing out that foetal tissue research has been essential to developing therapies that have saved millions of lives. The development of vaccines against polio, rubella, measles, chickenpox, adenovirus, and rabies all involved foetal tissue, as did the discovery of treatments for rheumatoid arthritis, cystic fibrosis, and haemophilia.
The Trump administration said it would continue to fund research into alternatives to foetal tissue from elective abortions. Last year, National Institute of Health (NIH) said it planned to devote as much as $20m to work on such alternatives.
The report says the administration also announced it was cancelling a contract with a University of California San Francisco lab that was testing new HIV therapies with foetal tissue. HHS had been extending that contract for 90 days at a time while it carried out an audit of federally funded foetal tissue research, but decided against extending it again after it expired.
A senior official said the policy move came from the US president, not the NIH director, Francis Collins, reports BBC News. The official said the changes would affect at least three active federal projects and as many as 12.
Cell lines created from human foetal tissue have been instrumental in developing treatments for diseases from arthritis to cystic fibrosis and vaccines for rubella, adenovirus, rabies, chickenpox and polio. And, the report quotes scientists as saying it is also the only way to develop a cure for HIV, the Zika virus and childhood cancers.
The March for Life, an anti-abortion organisation, applauded the decision, saying: “This type of research involves the gross violation of basic human rights and certainly, the government has no business funding it.”
But, Democratic congresswoman Lois Frankel of Florida said in the report that the US was “heading back to the dark ages”. Fellow Democratic congresswoman Diana DeGette called the measure “chilling” and said it “only prevents the discovery of even more breakthroughs in the future”.
A few answers to questions about the issue are carried on the Kaiser Health site.
Q: What exactly does foetal tissue research refer to?
Foetal tissue is any tissue or organ obtained from a foetus that was fertilized at least eight weeks earlier. (Anything younger than that is called an embryo.) The statement from the Department of Health and Human Services referred repeatedly to “human foetal tissue from elective abortions.” Researchers generally use foetal tissue from elective abortions rather than miscarriages because miscarriages often result from chromosomal or other developmental abnormalities that could make the tissue unsuitable for research.
Q: What is foetal tissue research used for?
These cells are less specialized than adult tissue cells and can be grown readily, making them valuable in research. Foetal tissue has been used in many types of medical research, including the development of vaccines for polio, measles and other diseases, and therapies to treat Parkinson’s, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and to prevent the transmission of HIV.
Some researchers graft foetal tissue onto mice, creating “humanised mice” with human blood-forming and immune systems.
Foetal tissue helps researchers learn about birth defects and human tissue development.
In recent years, it has been instrumental in understanding how the Zika virus crosses the placenta and affects the development of the human brain, according to a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar signed by 70 organisations in December in support of continued foetal tissue research.
Q: Are there rules about using foetal tissue?
Strict federal rules govern the collection and use of human foetal tissue. It’s against the law for anyone to accept payment for human foetal tissue, except for reasonable amounts associated with acquisition, storage or other costs. There are also provisions that require women who are donating foetal tissue for research to provide informed consent and prohibit physicians from altering the timing or method of an abortion in order to obtain foetal tissue.
Q: Has it always been as controversial as it is today?
Not really. The level of controversy around foetal tissue research waxes and wanes. Human foetal tissue research has been done in the US since the 1930s, and NIH has been funding this type of research since the 1950s. There was a ban on such funding, however, during part of the terms of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush. Federal money was restored with bipartisan support in a 1993 Bill for the NIH. Among the backers of that effort were some strong abortion opponents, such as Senator Strom Thurmond (R-SC), who argued that the research could help people – like his daughter – with diabetes.
NIH spent $115m on human foetal tissue research in 2018, a tiny fraction of the nearly $14bn it spent on clinical research overall. NIH currently funds roughly 200 projects that use foetal tissue, according to HHS.
Foetal tissue once again became a hot-button issue in 2015 with the release of doctored videos, later discredited, purporting to show Planned Parenthood officials discussing tissue donation policies and reimbursement. Last fall, the Trump administration announced it was conducting a review of all research involving foetal tissue to ensure it was consistent with statutes and regulations governing it.
Q: Aren’t there effective alternatives?
It depends on whom you ask. Opponents of foetal tissue research point to a number of other possible options, including monkey or hamster cells for vaccines as well as blood collected after birth from umbilical cords that are rich in blood-forming stem cells. They also suggest the use of adult stem cells and “organoids” – artificially grown cells that somewhat mimic organs.
“Why do we keep focusing on these archaic models when newer, better alternatives are out there?” asked Tara Sander Lee, a senior fellow and director of life sciences at the Charlotte Lozier Institute, which opposes research using foetal tissue from elective abortion. She suggested that using tissue from a miscarriage could be an acceptable alternative to using tissue from an aborted foetus because it’s from “a natural death, not an intentional killing of the child.”
The letter from researchers to Azar in December called the idea that other cells could replace foetal tissue “patently incorrect.”
“The study of human foetal tissue provides researchers with incomparable insights into how birth defects arise and how they can be prevented as well as an unparalleled window into the complexity of human tissue development,” the letter said.
Sally Temple, scientific director of the Neural Stem Cell Institute who is a past president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, said that while these other types of cells hold promise, they aren’t ready for prime time.
“There’s a lot of excitement about using stem cells and talk about how we can use three-dimensional organoids,” said Temple. But organoids don’t have the same cellular arrangement or blood vessel network. “Organoids can’t mimic real tissue,” she said.
“If we’re going to understand how tissues are made in humans, you really have to have access to human tissue,” she added. “It makes you so nervous that scientists aren’t being heard.”