Fetal Tissue Research Facts and Why It's so Controversial
The Trump Administration banned government researchers from conducting studies with tissue obtained through abortions. Here’s what that means.
The Trump Administration announced yesterday that it was discontinuing all research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) involving the use of human fetal tissue obtained from elective abortions. It also chose not to renew a long-running contract with the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF)—which expired yesterday—to provide funding for such research being conducted at the university.
In a statement provided to Health and published online, UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood said that the university "strongly opposes” the administration’s decision to discontinue fetal tissue research at the NIH. “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 added.
The decision to cut funding to UCSF and ban fetal tissue research within the NIH is being praised by anti-abortion groups but criticized by many science and health organizations. What exactly is research involving human fetal tissue, and why is it considered so important for modern medicine? Here are the facts doctors and scientists want you to know.
Why is fetal tissue used in research?
As early as the 1930s, scientists discovered that cells and tissue from human fetuses and embryos could be useful for medical studies—to test new drugs or to understand how human tissue might react to certain stimuli, for example. Because fetal cells are often still undifferentiated (which means they haven’t developed into certain types of cells, like nerve cells or blood cells), they can be used broadly in many different fields of research.
“Researchers use fetal tissue to produce cell cultures, also called cell lines, which can be maintained in a laboratory environment for very long periods of time, in some cases indefinitely,” explains a 2015 report from the Congressional Research Service. “Cultured cells mimic many of the properties that they have in a living body, and therefore can be used as a model for researchers studying basic biological processes.”
In some cases, researchers perform experiments on fetal tissue itself (to study potential causes of birth defects, for example). In others, they inject fetal cells into mice to make their bodies and immune systems behave more human.
The NIH has supported this type of research since the 1950s, according to the Congressional report, and was slated to spend $77 million on fetal tissue research in 2016. People who oppose this research claim that scientists don’t have to use fetal tissue, and that computer models or animal tissue can be acceptable alternatives. But supporters disagree.
“If we want to study a process, it’s best to study the real thing,” Akhilesh Pandey, MD, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told the Baltimore Sun in 2015. “Models can be insufficient in mimicking what we want to study, Even today we don’t understand all the biological processes.”
“Fetal tissue is a flexible, less-differentiated tissue,” Carrie Wolinetz, the NIH associate director for science policy, told Nature in 2015. “It grows readily and adapts to new environments, allowing researchers to study basic biology or use it as a tool in a way that can’t be replicated with adult tissue.”
What are the medical benefits of fetal tissue research?
According to STAT News, fetal tissue was involved in the discovery of treatments for rheumatoid arthritis, cystic fibrosis, and hemophilia. Recently, research on fetal tissue has helped scientists learn how the Zika virus might cause birth defects, and how it might be prevented.
Certain vaccines, including those for polio, measles, chickenpox, and rabies, were also developed with the use of stem cells derived from human fetal tissue. (Despite this, the Catholic Church—which is strongly opposed to abortion—has said that the benefits of vaccination outweigh the ethical issues involved.)
Last year, when the Trump administration temporarily halted the acquisition of new fetal tissue for government research, Science magazine reported that studies being conducted by the National Eye Institute, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and the National Cancer Institute were affected.
And in his statement, UCSF Chancellor Hawgood said that “fetal tissue is used in important research aimed at discovering cures for illnesses that affect the lives of millions of Americans, including Alzheimer’s, spinal cord injury, eye disease, and HIV.” He also noted that UCSF had been working with specially designed models “that could be developed only through the use of fetal tissue to find a cure for HIV.”
How is fetal tissue obtained for medical research?
The primary source by which research institutions obtain fetal tissue is through hospitals and clinics that perform abortions. It is illegal for those organizations to profit off the sale of that tissue (hence the controversy that ensued when Planned Parenthood was falsely accused of “selling baby parts” in 2015), or for providers to discuss donating fetal tissue for medical research with a woman before she decides to have an abortion.
Some states have even stricter laws that prohibit research on fetal tissue entirely. The American Medical Association also has a Code of Medical Ethics that physicians are advised to follow when involved with research that uses human fetal tissue.
Hagwood said in his statement that “UCSF exercised appropriate oversight and complied with all state and federal laws,” but that their contract was terminated anyway. “We believe this decision to be politically motivated, shortsighted, and not based on sound science,” he added.
What happens next?
As for UCSF’s ongoing research, Hagwood’s statement says the university “will continue to collaborate with the UC Office of the President, as well as with other universities, science associations, and affiliated organizations, to advocate for sustained federal funding of fetal tissue research with Congress and the Administration.”
A statement from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) notes that no other research being conducted outside the NIH, even those receiving NIH funding, will be affected “during their currently approved project period.” Newly proposed projects, however, or those reapplying for grants, will be considered by a new ethics advisory board to determine whether they should be funded.
The statement also notes that HHS is continuing to search for "adequate alternatives” to the use of human fetal tissue obtained from elective abortions. Last year, the NIH announced a $20 million grant opportunity for researchers who could develop and implement such alternatives.
“Promoting the dignity of human life from conception to natural death is one of the very top priorities of President Trump’s administration,” the HHS statement reads.
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