The Trump crackdown on foetal tissue research, with new hurdles for government-funded scientists around the country who call the special cells vital for fighting a range of health threats. Stat News reports that already, the administration has shut down one university’s work using foetal tissue to test HIV treatments, and is ending other foetal tissue research at the National Institutes of Health.
“I knew this was something that’s going to trickle down to the rest of us,” says University of Pittsburgh scientist Carolyn Coyne. She uses the placenta, which people may not think of as foetal tissue but technically is classified as such because the foetus produced it, to study how viruses such as Zika get past that protective barrier early in pregnancy. “It seems to me what we’re moving toward is a ban,” she added. If so, when it comes to unravelling what happens in pregnancy and foetal development, “we’re going to stay ignorant to a lot of things.”
The report says different types of tissue left over from elective abortions have been used in scientific research for decades, and the work has been credited with leading to lifesaving vaccines and other advances. Under orders from President Donald Trump, the Health and Human Services Department abruptly announced last week the new restrictions on taxpayer-funded research, but not privately funded work.
The report says aside from the cancellation of an HIV-related project at the University of California San Francisco, university-led projects that are funded by the NIH — estimated to be fewer than 200 — aren’t affected right away. But, as researchers seek to renew their funding or propose new studies, HHS said it will have to pass an extra layer of review, beyond today’s strict scientific scrutiny. Each project will have a federal ethics board appointed to recommend whether NIH should grant the money.
The report says HHS hasn’t offered details but under the law authorising the review process, that board must include not just biomedical experts but a theologian, and the nation’s health secretary can overrule its advice.
“I predict over time we will see a slow and steady elimination of federal funding for research that uses foetal tissue, regardless of how necessary it is,” said University of Wisconsin law professor Alta Charo, a nationally recognised bioethics expert.
The report says necessity is the crux of a fierce debate between abortion foes and scientists about whether there are alternatives to foetal tissue for research.
Zika offers a glimpse at the difficulty. Somehow, the Zika virus can sneak from the mother’s bloodstream across the placenta, which protects and nourishes the foetus, and target the foetus’ brain. It’s something researchers hope to learn to block. Studying the placentas of small animals or even monkeys isn’t a substitute because they differ from the human organ, said Emory University researcher Mehul Suthar. For example, the specific type of placental cell where Zika can lurk in humans isn’t thought to be present in mouse placentas.
And because the placenta continually changes as the foetus that created it grows, first-trimester tissue may show a very different vulnerability than a placenta that’s expelled during full-term birth, when it’s no longer defined as foetal tissue but as medical waste.
Suthar recently submitted a new grant application to study first- and second-trimester placental tissue, and is worried about its fate under the still uncertain ethics provision. It “sounds a bit murky as to what the impact could be,” he said. It could be small, “or it could be an outright ban on what we’re doing.”
Anti-abortion groups argue there are alternatives, such as stem cells, growing organ-like clumps of cells in lab dishes, or using tissue taken from newborns as they have heart surgery.
Indeed, the report says NIH is funding a $20m programme to research alternatives to foetal tissue and to prove whether they work as well.
“Taxpayer funding ought to go to promote alternatives that are already being used in the production of treatments, vaccines and medicines, and to expand approaches that do not depend on the destruction of unborn children,” said Mallory Quigley of the Susan B Anthony List, which works to elect anti-abortion candidates to public office.
But dozens of medical and science organisations have told HHS there is no substitute for foetal tissue in studying certain – not all – health disorders, such as HIV, Zika, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, spinal cord injury, and a variety of eye diseases.
To Pittsburgh’s Coyne, part of the political debate is a “completely unsubstantiated belief that not allowing research and science is going to prevent or stop abortions, which is not the case.”
Medical research using foetal tissue won’t stop but will move to other countries, said Charo, who advised the Obama administration. The UK, Australia, Singapore and China are among the countries using foetal tissue to seek breakthroughs. “Other countries work with this in a regulated fashion and they will continue to outstrip us,” she said. “We have allowed patients’ interests to become collateral damage in the abortion wars.”
This is nothing more than an anti-scientific sop to the religious right, which sees foetal tissue research as another front in the war on abortion, says a Los Angeles Times editorial. But barring foetal tissue research will hurt more babies than it will save. In fact, the editorial points out, it won’t save any babies at all, because abortion is a constitutionally protected right that will continue regardless of these rules.
The editorial says what such a policy will do is chill important research that could help babies – and children and adults – avoid suffering and death.
Foetal tissue research has helped scientists understand debilitating and deadly maladies such as Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and Parkinson’s disease so treatments can be developed. Cells cultured from aborted foetuses were used to develop vaccines for rubella, rabies and other serious diseases. At the moment researchers are using foetal tissue find a vaccine for the Zika virus, which has devastating effects on babies born to women who contract it while pregnant.
The editorial says that those opposed to foetal tissue research for moral reasons argue that the potential life packed into every foetus, no matter how undeveloped, is sacred and deserves the same protection as a newborn baby. They also say that there are reasonable alternatives to foetal research, such as using cells from human bone marrow and umbilical cord blood. But that view is not shared by all researchers, and, the editorial argues, it seems a greater moral transgression to deny science the best tools available to find cures and create medicine for sick people.
The editorial says Trump is not the first Republican president to put restrictions on federal funding for foetal tissue research. In 2001, President Bush imposed a ban on federal funding for research on newly created human embryonic stem cell lines. That ban did not entirely stop research and important scientific advances, but it did hamper them. (President Obama loosened some, but not all, of the restrictions.)
Trump’s ban is at direct odds with the goal he announced just a few months ago: to end Aids in America. “Scientific breakthroughs have brought a once-distant dream within reach,” he said during his State of the Union speech in February. But, the editorial points out, future breakthroughs may be impossible without the help of foetal tissue research.