Pausing Fetal Tissue Research

Science Interrupted
Why has the Trump administration paused fetal tissue research?
by Larry Buhl

Warner Greene, director of the Gladstone Center for HIV Cure Research in San Francisco, had been working on a study probing how and why HIV initially colonizes human tissues when in September he received word that his project collaborator, Rocky Mountain Labs, would not be able to procure immunodeficient mice “humanized” using human fetal cells. The reason: The Department of Health and Human Services, the department that oversees the National Institutes of Health (NIH), had quietly cancelled a U.S. Food and Drug Administration contract to purchase fetal tissue for drug testing, pending the outcome of a review of all federally funded research using fetal tissue obtained after elective abortions. The pause only applies to the scientists in intramural programs, or NIH employees.

“We were taken aback,” Greene told A&U. Soon after the September ruling the NIH said that it would let another contract with humanized mice expire, and Greene became alarmed, though he said subsequent statements from the NIH have assured him that the pause would not permanently affect his research.

“It’s become clear that the NIH would like the science to go forward, but they are getting instructions from above, from HHS,” he said.

In an email, Caitlin Oakley, a spokesperson from HHS, said the intent of the pause 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.”

Oakley went on to say that calling it a “ban” on fetal tissue is incorrect and that the agency’s action in September merely “put a pause in place” for staff scientists procuring new human fetal tissue, “an action NIH thought was prudent given the examination of these procurements.”

“Research with tissue already on hand could proceed, and NIH leaders asked to be notified by intramural investigators if new procurement would be necessary. NIH leadership was not informed that new procurement was necessary for the study you reference in your story. We are looking into why this did not occur.”

“If procuring new fetal tissues is crucial to that work, then we will work with people to make sure that research continues,” Oakley added.

Earlier in December NIH promised to spend $20 million to find alternative fetal tissue for scientific research.

Speaking with reporters in December at a meeting of the Advisory Committee to the Director, NIH Principal Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak took the blame for the HIV project’s shutdown, saying that when the fetal tissue pause was announced he did not realize that the scientists had an immediate need for new tissue.

Greene added that that meeting on December 18 led by Admiral Giroir, the Assistant Secretary for Health at HHS, and attended by his collaborator at Rocky Mountain Labs left his collaborator “feeling very good and that the NIH would somehow help get back online with his research.” How the NIH would do that, he said, was still not clear. Nor was he able to speculate on what alternatives to fetal tissue might provide the same research benefits.

Tissue from aborted fetuses is used to study early disease development, including HIV and cancer, as well as in experimental therapies that transplant cells into the brain or spinal cord.

Greene’s experiment seeks to find out why a reservoir in which HIV resides is established exceedingly fast after initial infection. “We think that in the normal process of HIV infection, as it grows in the CD4 T cell, that there are chemical messengers released in those lymphoid tissues that attract the cells that form the latent reservoir. We want to treat [the mice] with an antibody and see whether it would block the formation of the reservoir.”

Fetal tissue receives about $80 million federal funding from the NIH. That research has faced strong opposition from some Republican lawmakers and has been a rallying cry for anti-abortion activists. The Republican Party platform states that Congress should “make it a crime to acquire, transfer, or sell fetal tissues from elective abortions for research.”

In December, two anti-abortion groups, Live Action and March for Life, called for the ouster of NIH Director Francis Collins over his support for fetal tissue research.

Greene told A&U that his study is now on hold until April. “We’re using the mice we already acquired, but we need to do more than one experiment. You have to replicate. Will NIH expect us to find a supplier, or will they provide a supplier? It’s not clear.”

Larry Buhl is a multimedia journalist, screenwriter, and novelist living in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @LarryBuhl.