What People Don’t Understand About Fetal Tissue Research

The Trump administration is cutting back funding for research involving fetal tissue.

Scientists say a total ban on such research would be “catastrophic;” others applaud the decision.

By Erika Edwards, June 9, 2019

NBC News – Doctors and scientists are denouncing the Trump administration’s decision to cut funding for research that uses fetal tissue, saying that the material is essential for life-saving medical research.

The administration announced Wednesday that it would drastically cut federal spending on medical research that uses “fetal tissue from elective abortions.”

The move will affect multimillion-dollar research projects at the National Institutes of Health and the University of California, San Francisco.

Supporters of the administration’s decision have likened the research to a marketplace that deals in “aborted baby body parts.”

That kind of language can elicit a visceral reaction. Researchers strongly disagree with that portrayal, however, and say fetal tissue research projects are meticulously vetted.

“There’s a misconception that fetal tissue research is the wild, Wild West,” said Ellie Dehoney, vice president of policy and advocacy for Research!America, a nonprofit group that advocates for scientific research.

“There’s a very careful look at every research grant. If a project makes the cut, it means there is a belief by scientists not involved in research that there’s a beneficial purpose for advancing science,” Dehoney told NBC News.

Indeed, the American Medical Association, which supports fetal tissue research, has a detailed code of ethics for how to carry out such research.

Sam Hawgood, the chancellor of the University of California, San Francisco, said the university’s research using fetal tissue to find a cure for HIV — now halted by the administration’s action — was based in sound science.

“UCSF exercised appropriate oversight and complied with all state and federal laws,” he said in a statement.

Why is fetal tissue used in research?

Scientists use fetal tissue as a source of fetal cells. These cells have been used for research since the 1930s, and the government has funded such research since the 1950s, when it was used to create one of the biggest medical advances of the 20th century: the polio vaccine … Read more. 

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FAQ: How Does New Trump Fetal Tissue Policy Impact Medical Research?

By Michelle Andrews, June  7, 2019

Kaiser Health News – The announcement this week that the federal government is changing its policy on the use of human fetal tissue in medical research is designed to please anti-abortion groups that have strongly supported President Donald Trump.

But it could jeopardize promising medical research and set back attempts to make inroads in devastating diseases such as HIV, Parkinson’s and diabetes, U.S. scientists said.

Under the new policy, employees at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will no longer conduct research with human fetal tissue obtained from elective abortions, after using up any material they have on hand.

Officials also immediately stopped funding a multiyear contract at the University of California-San Francisco using human fetal tissue in mice to research HIV therapies.

Federally funded projects at other research institutions using fetal tissue can continue until their grants expire.

But renewal for these projects and future proposals will have to go through a newly established ethics review process to receive funding.

It’s not clear yet what standards that process will entail or whether such experiments will be able to proceed under government sponsorship.

The change was enthusiastically welcomed by abortion opponents, who have long had fetal tissue research in their sights. Many scientists had a very different view.

Here are a few answers to questions about the issue.

Q: What exactly does fetal tissue research refer to?

Fetal tissue is any tissue or organ obtained from a fetus 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 fetal tissue from elective abortions.”

Researchers generally use fetal 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 fetal tissue research used for?

These cells are less specialized than adult tissue cells and can be grown readily, making them valuable in research.

Fetal 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 fetal tissue onto mice, creating “humanized mice” with human blood-forming and immune systems.

Fetal 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 organizations in December in support of continued fetal tissue research.

Q: Are there rules about using fetal tissue?

Strict federal rules govern the collection and use of human fetal tissue.

It’s against the law for anyone to accept payment for human fetal tissue, except for reasonable amounts associated with acquisition, storage or other costs.

There are also provisions that require women who are donating fetal tissue for research to provide informed consent and prohibit physicians from altering the timing or method of an abortion in order to obtain fetal tissue.

Q: Has it always been as controversial as it is today?

Not really. The level of controversy around fetal tissue research waxes and wanes. Human fetal tissue research has been done in the United States 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 H.W. 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 Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), who argued that the research could help people — like his daughter — with diabetes.

NIH spent $115 million on human fetal tissue research in 2018, a tiny fraction of the nearly $14 billion it spent on clinical research overall. NIH currently funds roughly 200 projects that use fetal tissue, according to HHS.

Fetal 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 fetal 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 fetal 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 fetal tissue from elective abortion.

She suggested that using tissue from a miscarriage could be an acceptable alternative to using tissue from an aborted fetus 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 fetal tissue “patently incorrect.”

“The study of human fetal 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. Read more. 

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Use of Aborted Fetal Tissue: Questions & Answers

Charlotte Lozier Institute | June 5, 2019.

On May 23, Susan B. Anthony List and Charlotte Lozier Institute hosted a hearing for Capitol Hill staff on the state of fetal issue research. The panel consisted of Drs. David Prentice, Tara Sander Lee, and James Sherley, and was moderated by SBA List’s Autumn Christensen. These are their questions and answers, as provided to staff.

Q1: In the late 1980s and early 1990s Congress was embroiled in a fight over fetal tissue transplantation. What happened during that fight and what is the difference between fetal tissue transplantation and basic research using baby body parts?

In 1988, President Reagan placed a moratorium on federal funding of transplantation research using aborted fetal tissue. That moratorium remained in place until lifted by President Clinton in January 1993. Subsequently, Congressman Waxman led an effort that resulted in a statute that says, “The Secretary may conduct or support research on the transplantation of human fetal tissue for therapeutic purposes.” [42 U.S.C. 289g-1 and g-2]

Two large controlled trials were finally funded to transplant aborted fetal brain tissue into Parkinson’s patients. Those results, which came out in 2001 and 2003, showed that fetal tissue transplants did not help patients and actually made many patients worse.

The New York Times front-page story contained the doctors’ descriptions of patients writhing, twisting, and jerking with uncontrollable movements; the doctors called the results “absolutely devastating,” “tragic, catastrophic,” and labeled the results “a real nightmare.” The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is required to report to Congress its funding of fetal tissue research; it has not funded any clinical trials with fetal tissue in over a decade.

The only real success for transplants has come from adult stem cells, which have already helped roughly 2 million people, for dozens of diseases and conditions.

Basic laboratory research using fetal tissue is not covered by the statute. Federal funding of basic research is allowed at the discretion of the Director of NIH. Current taxpayer funding is approximately $120 million per year.

Resources for Question 1:

  • Gina Kolata, “Parkinson’s Research Is Set Back by Failure of Fetal Cell Implants,” New York TimesMarch 8, 2001; accessed at: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/03/08/health/08PARK.html
  • Freed CR et al., Transplantation of embryonic dopamine neurons for severe Parkinson’s disease, N Engl J Med344, 710, 2001
  • Olanow CW et al., A Double-blind Controlled Trial of Bilateral Fetal Nigral Transplantation in Parkinson’s Disease, Ann Neurol54, 403, 2003
  • Prentice DA, Adult Stem Cells: Successful Standard for Regenerative Medicine, Circulation Research124, 837-839, 15 March 2019.

Q2: In the summer of 2015, the Center for Medical Progress released videos exposing the sale of baby body parts.

These undercover videos showed Planned Parenthood staff discussing abortion procedures with individuals they believed to be interested in buying baby body parts for research.

These videos kicked off a national awareness of the gruesome process of trading in baby body parts and even the potential for babies to be born alive and harvested for research – leading to the Born Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act. What has come of these revelations?

The undercover work of the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) reveals a cynical culture of disregard for human fetuses as innocent human beings by high-level executives and senior abortion performers in Planned Parenthood (PP).

In fact, some Planned Parenthood sites were revealed to be knowingly conducting illegal trade in human fetal tissue with commercial buyers.

However, what is most troubling about the revelation of the CMP tapes is the recorded abortion providers’ bland attitudes towards aborted fetuses as faceless commodities for sale, and in some cases for personal benefit, without any expressed sense of compassion or concern for either the aborted infants or their mothers.

In 2017, the LA Times reported that two related companies in California, DaVinci Biosciences and DV Biologics, “reached a $7.785-million settlement with the Orange County district attorney’s office over allegations that they illegally sold fetal tissue to companies around the world.”

The same companies were featured in the CMP tapes for sourcing fetal tissue from Planned Parenthood. “The agreement also [required] the companies to admit liability for violations of state and federal laws prohibiting the sale or purchase of fetal tissue for research purposes…”

StemExpress, a biomedical tissue procurement firm that previously sourced electively aborted fetal tissue from Planned Parenthood, severed its ties with PP in the wake of the CMP tapes. The company no longer lists fetal tissues at its website.

Advanced Bioscience Resources (ABR) is an even more troubling case that was brought to light as a result of the CMP investigation.

This company was contracted by the U.S. FDA to source fetal tissue from PP for use in government biomedical research.

Though ethically objectionable, these transfers would still have been legal, except that ABR may have intentionally operated at a profit, which is illegal.

U.S. Health and Human Services has since revoked the FDA contract with ABR, and the U.S. Department of Justice is now investigating ABR for criminal wrongdoing. Read more.