Fetal tissue research: what it is, why it’s controversial, and why the Trump administration is cracking down on it
The Trump administration dramatically cut federal funding for human fetal tissue research this week, a move anti-abortion activists have applauded but many scientists have found worrying.
The US Department of Health and Human Services announced on Wednesday that government scientists at the National Institutes of Health would no longer be permitted to conduct research on human fetal tissue. Ongoing external fetal tissue projects receiving NIH funding would be allowed to continue, the agency said, but new grant applications or renewals from universities and research institutes would now be submitted to an advisory committee of ‘ethics.
In case you missed it: Trump Ends Fetal Tissue Research By Federal Scientists
Human fetal tissue, obtained by elective abortion, has been used in research for decades, including in the development of some vaccines. But it has also been the subject of considerable controversy.
Here, MarketWatch breaks down what human fetal tissue is, why scientists use it, the controversy surrounding its use, and what the Trump administration’s new limits will mean for medical research.
Why do scientists use human fetal tissue for research?
“Fetal tissue is unique,” Ross McKinney, scientific director of the Association of American Medical Colleges, told MarketWatch.
Fetal stem cells can proliferate to generate large numbers of cells – which is important for research – and can serve as a guide for scientists on how cell differentiation works. The cells are undifferentiated; they have not yet developed into specific cells for certain tissues and organs. By studying fetal tissue, researchers can understand what must happen for a fetal cell to become a specific type of cell. This is important for scientists who are looking for ways to restore certain tissues in patients who may have lost them due to disease.
Scientists use fetal tissue in many types of research. Some study the tissue to better understand the human fetus itself. Others use it to build animal models to assess the effects of certain drugs and disease processes.
What are the current rules for obtaining human fetal tissue?
The American Medical Association has a code of ethics that describes how human fetal tissue can be obtained.
First of all, there should be no discussion of using fetal tissue for research until a woman decides to terminate her pregnancy. Second, money should never be offered in exchange for fetal tissue. The woman must give her informed consent for the fetal tissue to be used for research, and systems must be in place so that health workers involved in the termination of pregnancy do not benefit from the termination itself or the use of fetal tissue. .
“Basically, fetal tissue should be treated the same as organ donation after death,” said McKinney of the AAMC.
Why is the use of human fetal tissue controversial?
The problems associated with the use of human fetal tissue boil down to divergent views on whether a fetus is considered a human being.
“It’s the main starting point for how you make any decision,” said David Prentice, vice president and research director of the Charlotte Lozier Institute, the educational arm of the Susan B. Anthony List. He and his colleagues believe that human life begins at conception, that the fetus is a human being and should have the rights of a human being, and that the government should not fund research using fetal tissue from abortions.
“This is about human dignity and fundamental respect for the deceased human being,” said Prentice, a researcher who advocates the use of adult stem cells in research rather than fetal stem cells.
Prentice said he was also concerned about possible trafficking, and said some people – especially those who have objections about the use of fetal tissue in research – may not feel comfortable with it. the therapies resulting from this research.
“So now you’re talking about an access issue for some people,” he said.
Other scientists say trafficking is not a problem, noting that safeguards are in place around the acquisition and use of fetal tissue. The benefits of fetal tissue research are too great to ignore, they say.
“Scientists don’t take this lightly,” said David Scadden, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. “It is recognized that this is an extremely sensitive issue and we want to be respectful, but it must be recognized that in the long run we are trying to do something that benefits those who are suffering.”
Are there good alternatives to human fetal tissue?
Some scientists, including Prentice, tout the use of reprogrammed adult stem cells called induced pluripotent stem cells. These mature cells, genetically engineered to behave in a manner similar to fetal stem cells, have shown great promise. However, fetal stem cells are still the gold standard, according to Harvard’s Scadden.
This view is also shared by the director of the director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins. At an NIH meeting in December, Collins said spending on finding alternatives to fetal tissue was “scientifically, highly justified,” but fetal tissue “will continue to be the mainstay.”
“There is strong evidence that the scientific benefits of fetal tissue research, [which] can be done with [an] ethical framework ”, he added, according to an article in Science.
Why has the Trump administration cracked down on the use of fetal tissue in research?
“Promoting the dignity of human life from conception to natural death is one of the top priorities of President Trump’s administration,” HHS said in a statement Wednesday when it announced the news. limitations of fetal tissue research.
Anti-abortion activists have advocated for decades to end federal funding for fetal tissue research. The group is at the heart of President Donald Trump’s political base, and multiple media reported that Wednesday’s decision came directly from the president.
What does the Trump administration’s limit on fetal tissue research mean for the future of medical discoveries?
Some groups believe the new limits of fetal tissue research are a good thing because scientists will be forced to find alternatives to fetal stem cells. Others are worried, saying the restrictions will prevent important research into birth defects, congenital infections, HIV and many other diseases.
“There are a lot of different areas of research that are going to be affected,” said Scadden of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. One of his own projects involving fetal tissue will now stop, he said. And HHS said Wednesday it would not renew an expiring contract with the University of California at San Francisco, where researchers use fetal tissue to create a mouse-like immune system for HIV research.
“Today, fetal tissue still has an impact, with ongoing clinical trials using cells from fetal tissue to treat conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, ALS and spinal cord injury. Fetal tissue is also used to understand and develop potential treatments for major global health problems such as Zika virus and HIV / AIDS, ”said International Stem Cell Research Society President Doug Melton, in a press release. “The elimination of long-standing federal funding will delay this critical research and delay the development of potential therapies for these and other infectious diseases.
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