The US government should restrict or eliminate support for research with human fetal tissue obtained from abortions because it is of little use to medicine, a special panel of the US House of Representatives said on January 3.
The panel said that the US National Institute of Health (NIH) should develop a system to determine whether fetal tissue is “the most appropriate model” for projects seeking government funding. The panel also urged Congress to commission studies on the feasibility of using tissue from stillborn and preterm infants. If that proves viable, the group said, the US government should stop funding experiments with tissue from aborted fetuses—even though dozens of universities and scientific societies say such research is vital to the development of new therapies.
The recommendations released by panel Republicans come after an extensive probe of the practice of distributing human fetal tissue for research. Scientists reacted strongly to the report. “Fetal tissue research is scientifically important and it should continue to be pursued,” says Larry Goldstein, a neuroscientist at the University of California in San Diego. “This report is wrong and wrongheaded. It’s driven by ideology, not science.”
The House Committee on Energy and Commerce created the special panel in 2015 after undercover videos surfaced showing abortion providers and companies that distribute fetal tissue discussing how they gather the tissue, and payments for it. The videos caused an outcry—particularly among Republicans opposed to abortion—and prompted a series of congressional hearings and investigations.
In the aftermath, scientists who work with human fetal tissue worried that they would be targeted by anti-abortion groups, and that research with the tissue could be restricted. In a March 2016 statement signed by 62 institutions, the Association of American Medical Colleges argued that such research is vital for the development of therapies against Parkinson’s disease and the Ebola virus, and had been crucial in the development of vaccines.
Democrats on the investigative panel produced a report in December largely echoing these sentiments. But the Republican majority determined that such claims were “misleading and false”. “The alarmist claims that restrictions on human fetal tissue research would somehow delay or prevent the development of cures are entirely unfounded,” the Republicans wrote.
The panel also argued that human fetal tissue was not as important in the development of vaccines as proponents of the research have made it out to be. "This to me is very, very worrisome," says Alta Charo who studies law and ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "They are not only reimagining history but reimagining a future in which all the materials we currently think we need, we don’t actually need."
Much of the House Republicans' argument is predicated on the relative rarity of such research: their investigators tallied only 329 NIH grants involving fetal tissue research from 2010-2014, about 0.2% of NIH grants during that time. Few clinical trials involve fetal tissue, and the investigators concluded that published research using fetal tissue was poorly cited.
But this ignores how science works, counters Goldstein. “Something that’s scientifically important is not necessarily pursued by a lot of people,” he says. “It’s not a popularity contest.”
Fetal tissue is often an integral part of an experimental protocol without being the focus of the experiment itself, Goldstein adds, which may not be apparent on a grant application. And a paucity of publications may reflect the scarcity of fetal tissue. “Of course there are not many publications, because there’s not much of a supply of material—and that’s fine,” he says. “It’s used carefully.”
Difficulty acquiring such tissue is one reason that physiologist Alan Fine shifted his research programme at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, away from fetal tissue transplantation in neurological diseases. He believes such research should continue, but says that its benefits are sometimes exaggerated.
“The idea that fetal tissue represents an essential and gold-standard research material for work in many fields—those claims are a bit of a stretch,” says Fine. “But people do need to be mindful there may be cases where it is uniquely valuable to work with primary human fetal tissue.”
For David Prentice, vice president and research director at the anti-abortion nonprofit Charlotte Lozier Institute in Washington DC, such claims are clouded by researchers’ self-interest. “Like anybody, scientists don’t like to be told they can’t do certain things,” says Prentice. “I would say there are probably better and newer alternatives to any type of fresh fetal tissue.”
It is unclear how President-elect Donald Trump will view the matter, but Prentice says he is optimistic that the investigation’s recommendations will be influential in the newly elected Congress. "They will have a Republican majority in both the House and the Senate,” he says. “I think there is still some will to move ahead with some of these recommendations.”
This article is reproduced with permission and was first published on January 4, 2016.