RESEARCH

Trump just killed fetal tissue research. Here’s what scientists have to say

SOURCE: Jeff J. Mitchell/AFP
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By U2B Staff 

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The Trump administration has put an end to medical research by federal scientists that use fetal tissue, pandering to pressure from anti-abortion groups who immediately applauded the move.

In a six-paragraph statement, the Department of Health and Human Service (HHS) said it would discontinue its multimillion-dollar contract with the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), regarding research involving human fetal tissue from elective abortions.

USCF received over US$2 million in funding last year for its research using the material to develop treatments for infectious diseases such as HIV and the Zika virus. They were using the tissue on “mice”, which were engrafted with the material so they would respond more like humans in drugs and vaccines testing.

Then in September last year, amid intense pressure from pro-life activists, HHS cancelled its contract with the California-based Advanced Bioscience Resources, which was a main supplier of fetal tissue implanted into laboratory mice. In December, the department placed its contract with USCF, which started in 2013, on a series of 90-day extensions, pending its review on all fetal tissue research.

The current extension was due for expiry on Wednesday (June 5, 2019). In its statement, HHS confirmed there would be “no further extensions”.

The department tied the policy directly to the Trump government, saying: “Promoting the dignity of human life from conception to natural death is one of the very top priorities of President Trump’s administration.” A White House spokesman Judd Deere later confirmed the decision had come from President Donald Trump himself.

Apart from the UCSF contract, the decision effectively means the discontinuance of all research conducted internally at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that use fetal tissue from elective abortions. Grants to scientists outside will be allowed to run out its approval period, but will not be renewed.

For new extramural research (research conducted outside NIH, e.g., at universities, that are funded by NIH grants), grant applications will be subjected to review by a new ethics advisory board that will recommend “whether, in light of the ethical considerations, NIH should fund the research project.”

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‘Not based on sound science’

Activists and scientists were incensed by the decision. Across social media and in media headlines, Trump once again found himself the subject of a presidential roasting.

Lashing out with blistering comments, scientists insisted that when it comes to research on certain health problems, there was simply no better alternative to the human fetal tissue. 

UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood was among the first to respond, labelling the decision “politically motivated, shortsighted and not based on sound science.”

Fetal tissue, he argued, was critical to researching cures for a variety of illnesses affecting millions, including HIV, spinal cord injury, Alzheimer’s and eye disease. 

“The efforts by the administration to impede this work will undermine scientific discovery and the ability to find effective treatments for serious and life-threatening disease,” he said.

He said Trump’s decision effectively ended what had been a 30-year strategic partnership to find a cure for HIV that could have only be developed through the use of fetal tissue.

Hawgood also insisted that throughout its research, UCSF had exercised “appropriate oversight and complied with all state and federal laws”.

After Hawgood, numerous other experts chimed in with equally biting remarks.

“I think it’s ultimately a terrible, nonsensical policy,” said Larry Goldstein, distinguished professor in the University of California at San Diego’s department of cellular and molecular medicine, in the Washington Post.

“Valuable research that is directed at helping to develop therapies for terrible diseases will be stopped. And tissue that would be used will be thrown out instead.”

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The Guttmacher Institute pointed out that fetal tissue research had birthed many scientific advances through the decades, including the elimination of rubella, measles and polio.

“Fetal tissue research is also used in the development of vaccines against Ebola and HIV, the study of human development, and efforts to treat and cure conditions that affect millions of people across the United States,” the institute added.

“The president talks a lot about ending HIV while simultaneously taking steps to undermine research & programs seeking to do just that,” Guttmacher’s Senior Policy Manager Megan Donovan said.

“This move is part of a long-standing campaign to vilify abortion & abortion providers. It threatens the future of research to find treatments for HIV, Parkinson’s & other health threats.”

Opposition and protests by the religious right wing against fetal tissue research came to a head last year when it was alleged, among others, that it encouraged women to undergo abortions to meet demand for the material. Apart from ending the contract with the Advanced Bioscience Resources, HHS responded by saying it would review all research using the material.

But experts say the claim is far from the truth.

“There’s no evidence that the opportunity to donate tissue from fetal remains has ever led anyone to choose to have an abortion she might not otherwise have chosen,” says R. Alta Charo, a bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin, in the Los Angeles Times.

“In no way does it affect the number of abortions. In no way does it affect the number of fetuses that die.”

Before now, the NIH had been supporting the vast majority of fetal tissue research in the US, reports say.

It was funding some 200 internal and extramural research that used the material, an administration official told Washington Post on condition of anonymity. The official said three research projects conducted by the NIH would be affected by the policy change and researchers would no longer be allowed to procure more tissue samples once their current supply runs out.

HHS is currently reviewing the potential of other alternatives to human fetal tissue in all its research undertakings. It has also announced a US$20 million funding opportunity for research to “develop, demonstrate, and validate experimental models that do not rely on human fetal tissue from elective abortions”.