Funding for fetal tissue research will continue, agency assures scientists

Despite political pressure to end the use of human fetal tissue in biomedical research, there is "no pa...

Posted: Dec 21, 2018 7:21 AM
Updated: Dec 21, 2018 7:21 AM

Despite political pressure to end the use of human fetal tissue in biomedical research, there is "no pause in procurement of fetal tissue for extramural research," the National Institutes of Health said in a statement Thursday. Extramural research includes research conducted at universities, medical centers and other institutions that receive funding from the agency.

In September, the US Department of Health and Human Services canceled a contract with a fetal tissue procurement company due to concerns that the company was not meeting regulations. The agency initiated an audit of human fetal tissue acquisitions and a review to understand whether adequate alternatives exist to the use of human fetal tissue in Health and Human Services-funded research. A report from The Washington Post stated that an unnamed senior government official had committed to continued funding for fetal tissue research in nongovernment labs. He did so at a workshop conducted by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases on Tuesday.

Admiral Dr. Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health at HHS, is the official who made the verbal promise during the workshop to continue fetal research funding, according to the NIH statement.

"When HHS began its audit in September, NIH put a pause in place for procuring new human fetal tissue within its intramural program (research conducted by NIH investigators) until the conclusion of the audit," the National Institutes of Health statement says. "Research with tissue already on hand could proceed, and NIH leaders asked to be notified by intramural investigators if new procurement would be necessary. The intent was never to cause research to stop.

"NIH is currently assessing if there are other NIH intramural research projects that require procurement of new fetal tissue to determine appropriate next steps to prevent interruption of research," the statement adds.

The Health and Human Services audit is still ongoing as of Thursday, and no decision has been made concerning continued support of any fetal tissue research, according to agency spokeswoman Caitlin B. Oakley. Tuesday's workshop was held to assess advances and opportunities in the development and use of humanized mouse models, according to a summary provided by the US Department of Health and Human Services.

Humanized mice, which possess human cells, DNA tissues or immune systems, are used in some biomedical research. Workshop participants included leading scientists in the fields of immune system development and function, transplant immunology, autoimmunity and infectious disease research.

Canceled contracts and congressional hearings

Since the 1930s, scientists in the United States have used fetal tissue obtained through elective abortions in medical research and experimental therapies. And this research has been supported by the federal government since the 1950s.

Those opposed to abortion have sought for decades to prohibit using federal funds to support research using human fetal tissue, while those in the research world support its use.

The National Institutes of Health spends about $100 million a year on research involving human fetal tissue, government data shows.

Two House subcommittees considered alternatives to the controversial practice of using fetal tissue for research at a hearing December 13. Debate before the committees focused on the merits and value of two types of humanized mice: One requires fetal tissue; the other does not.

At the hearing, Dr. Tara Sander Lee, a molecular and cell biologist and an associate scholar with the Charlotte Lozier Institute, and Dr. David Prentice, an advisory board member for the Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center, said that several ethical alternatives to human fetal tissue are available to researchers, including donated human tissue, bone marrow and stem cells and their derivatives.

Dr. Sally Temple, a board member and former president with the International Society for Stem Cell Research, said that such alternatives may be useful for certain types of research but cannot replace fetal tissue, which has unique properties due to its developmental stage.

Support on both sides of the aisle

Patricia Morris, a board member of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology and a professor in the Reproductive Health Program at Rockefeller University, said human fetal tissue derived from elective abortions is "absolutely essential" for certain biomedical research.

"There is no substitute today," Morris said. "No reproducible, robust and clinically relevant materials are otherwise available." The "materials obtained from spontaneous abortions," she said as an example, are not only "highly variable" but often contain "critical gene defects."

During last week's hearing, Rep. Judy Chu, D-California, who sits on the Steering and Policy Committee, said that not only has the federal government funded fetal tissue research for more than seven decades with procurement governed by an "extensive regulatory framework," but fetal tissue research has a "long history of support from both sides of the aisle." Only today, Chu said, do anti-abortion "extremists" threaten the use of fetal tissue in research.

Dr. Irv Weissman, professor and director of the Stanford Institute of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, attended Tuesday's workshop via teleconference. Weissman emphasized that the consensus of participants was that the human fetal tissue humanized mouse model "behaves in all aspects in a superior fashion" to any existing alternatives. They are the "gold standard," he said.

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