Anger as US funding for fetal tissue research curtailed

Private funders and charitable foundations urged to support vital studies

June 10, 2019
embryo-cells
Source: iStock

Private funders and charitable foundations in the US have been urged to increase their support for medical research involving tissue from aborted fetuses, after the US government severely restricted federal funding.

The White House said on 5 June that the National Institutes of Health would stop funding new projects involving fetal tissue and that a $2 million (£1.6 million) per year contract with the University of California, San Francisco, would be immediately cancelled.

Other university research projects working with fetal matter would be assessed on a case-by-case basis, the Department of Health and Human Services said.

The move has sparked anger from the scientific community, who argue there is no suitable alternative for many life-saving studies.

The announcement is the latest in a series of recent moves pushed by the Trump administration and supported by pro-life lobbyists, who believe that the use of human tissue including unborn embryos or terminated fetuses within science is unethical.

In the months leading up to the decision, sector leaders including NIH director Francis Collins defended the importance of fetal tissue across a range of medical disciplines, stressing that its use had led to advances in medical vaccines and helped cure diseases.  

Lawrence Goldstein, distinguished professor and director of the stem cell programme at the University of California, San Diego, said the decision was bad news for US science. “It blocks important future research vital to the development of new therapies,” he said.

Moreover, the targeting of one particular strand of medical research was an insult to scientific expertise and set a sombre tone for academic autonomy, he added. “It’s terrible. Our community follows long-standing ethical guidelines supported by Democratic and Republican presidents and congresses to pursue this important research,” Professor Goldstein said, adding: “We will continue to follow these guidelines.”

Pro-life groups have long campaigned for scientists to seek alternative material for fetal tissue research, but Professor Goldstein warned that the material was impossible to replicate in a way the same campaigners would approve of.

“Of course researchers will consider, use and develop alternatives wherever possible, but at this point in time and in the foreseeable future, so-called alternatives cannot legitimately replace fetal tissue in research,” he explained. “In fact, validating alternatives will require fetal tissue as a gold standard comparison,” he added, resulting in a paradox whereby further experiments to seek alternatives would require fetal tissue themselves.

While there was “lots of valuable research being done outside of [the] NIH intramural programme”, the new restrictions will put pressure on researchers in the field to secure funds by other means. “All non-NIH sources will need to help out with [funding the gap],” he concluded.

Issuing a statement, the Department of Health and Human Services said: “Promoting the dignity of human life from conception to natural death is one of the very top priorities of President Trump’s administration.”

About 200 research projects involving fetal tissue and conducted at universities using grants from the NIH will be permitted to continue until their funding expires, the body confirmed, but ethics advisory boards would be appointed to review ongoing projects to determine whether or not to renew funding beyond that.

rachael.pells@timeshighereducation.com

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