Scientists Explain Why They Support Fetal Tissue Research
As the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) reviews all fetal tissue research funded by the federal government, it quietly paused the procurement of this type of tissue in September 2018. Science recently reported that this suspension is impacting at least two laboratories within the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is overseen by HHS.
One of the two affected projects is conducted at Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML) in Montana—a part of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Warner Greene, MD, PhD, senior investigator and director of the Center for HIV Cure Research at the Gladstone Institutes, was about to begin a collaboration with an RML scientist when they were instructed by the HHS that they could no longer obtain the fetal tissue needed for their research. Greene’s collaborators at RML use fetal tissue, donated by women who have had voluntary abortions, to create humanized mice that have human-like immune systems.
“We were testing an antibody we thought might prevent HIV from hiding in human cells, which could effectively prevent the virus from resurfacing if patients stop taking antiretroviral drugs,” said Greene. “Access to fetal tissue is pivotal for creating humanized mice, which are a standard experimental system that have been in steady use for decades. They are a valuable tool in HIV cure research and several other fields, and with this directive, they could now suddenly be taken away.”
Antiretroviral therapy is effective, but people living with HIV need to take a daily regimen of drugs to control the virus. However, because the virus hides in cellular reservoirs, it can come raging back within a few weeks if a patient stops taking the drugs. This latent virus represents the main barrier to a long-term and drug-free cure of HIV.
According to STAT News, “only researchers in the NIH’s intramural program were covered by September’s directive; outside researchers whose funding comes from the federal government were not.” The HHS has not yet confirmed whether it intends to eventually extend the restrictions to external scientists who also need fetal tissue for their projects.
“If the ban on the use of fetal tissue is extended to all NIH grantees, it could really thwart the progress of science,” added Greene. “Humanized mice are essential for helping us translate research in the lab into treatments that can benefit patients. More specifically, blocking the use of fetal tissue could seriously hinder our hopes of finding a cure for HIV.”
Many scientists rely on the use of fetal tissue for their research, because it accurately mimics human biology. Having been used since the 1930s, this type of tissue has led to a number of important scientific advances and treatments, including the development of the polio vaccine that saved countless lives. It continues to be an important model for research on infectious diseases, eye diseases, diabetes, certain neurodegenerative diseases, and more.
“It’s crucial to continue supporting the use of fetal tissue for research, particularly given that no substitutes exist,” said Gladstone President Deepak Srivastava, MD. “We recognize the sensitivities surrounding the procurement of this tissue, but we also have faith in the strict laws and ethical guidelines that are in place to ensure scientists comply with the field’s highest standards.”
The NIH announced on December 10, 2018, its intention to fund the development of “human tissue models that closely mimic and can be used to faithfully model human embryonic development or other aspects of human biology […] that do not rely on the use of human fetal tissue obtained from elective abortions.”
“Although this effort may not replace the need for fetal tissue in all cases, we strongly support any initiative by the NIH that can improve science or lead to better models to research the world’s most intractable diseases,” said Srivastava.
Updated on January 17, 2019:
In addition to requesting an end to all research using fetal tissue, a recent report indicates that anti-abortion advocates are now also asking for NIH Director Francis Collins to be dismissed. These ideological efforts would actually hinder several important research initiatives and could even prevent the development of potential cures.
“We continue to support the NIH and its director, who is focused on doing what is in the best interest of conducting rigorous science that aims to improve human health,” said Srivastava.
Along with the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR), Gladstone is also standing up for scientific research to ensure that reliable information can help inform policy makers, and the general public, when discussing topics related to science and, in particular, stem cell research.