WASHINGTON — Open-mindedness was in short supply at Thursday’s House hearing on alternatives to fetal tissue research, as committee members stated positions that appeared to have been solidified before hearing any testimony.
The House Oversight & Government Reform Committee hearing — which was organized by two different subcommittees — began with committee members from both sides of the aisle laying out their positions. “We want to make sure what is addressed today is sound science along with moral code that most Americans believe and support,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), chairman of the committee’s Subcommittee on Government Operations. “There are a lot of falsehoods out there on what this will do or won’t do. As someone who is proudly pro-life and who believes in the sanctity of life, it’s critically important that we look at all of these issues.”
Ranking member Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) had a different take. “I come to this hearing from the perspective of improving the practice of medicine,” he said. “The International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) calls fetal tissue an essential gold standard resource in biomedical research… Fetal tissue research has helped contribute to vaccines for polio, rubella, chickenpox, shingles… [vaccines] responsible for saving thousands of lives.” He added that fetal tissue research, which the federal government has funded since the 1950s, “is protected by law. The Department of Health and Human Services has set stringent ethical and legal guidelines [covering] transportation, research, and informed consent.”
The hearing occurred in the wake of the Trump administration’s efforts to halt government-funded fetal tissue research. In September, the administration told the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to stop acquiring new fetal tissue for research, disrupting an ongoing study on the AIDS virus, according to Science magazine. The order also affected the National Eye Institute, which uses fetal tissue to study retinal diseases, and the National Cancer Institute, which was doing an immunotherapy project that will need fetal tissue by January 31st of next year. The NIH also has announced that it intends to spend up to $20 million to study alternatives to fetal tissue research.
After members delivered their opening statements, Meadows introduced the three witnesses, two of whom were opposed to fetal tissue research and one who was not. The two fetal tissue research opponents were given introductions that included their academic credentials, publications, and other accomplishments. The fetal tissue research supporter was introduced with just her title and no other information.
The first witness, Tara Sander Lee, PhD, associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute, an Arlington, Virginia, research organization funded by the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group, argued that using fetal tissues for research was unnecessary. “I stand before you today with a message of hope,” she said. “We don’t need fetal body parts from aborted fetuses to achieve future scientific and medical advancements. Several alternatives exist that are abundant and more successful.”
“History has shown us that we never needed aborted fetal tissue to begin with,” Lee continued. “In the case of vaccines, cells derived from aborted fetuses were used in development process, but [were actually not needed] for these breakthroughs.”
The next witness, David Prentice, PhD, vice president and research director at the Charlotte Lozier Institute, said much the same.”There is no scientific necessity to continue taxpayer funding of fetal tissue [research],” said Prentice, who also advises a University of Kansas research center focusing on adult stem cells. “Taxpayer funding should go to successful patient-focused alternatives.” He gave examples of alternatives such as adult stem cells being used to develop treatments for stroke, multiple sclerosis, and sickle cell anemia. The new shingles vaccine — which is better than the older one — is being made using a non-fetal tissue cell, Prentice said.
The third witness, Sally Temple, PhD, former president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, disagreed. “Fetal tissue is an essential resource for study and developing [treatments],” said Temple, who is also co-founder and scientific director of the Neural Stem Cell Institute, in Rensselaer, N.Y. “The alternatives mentioned may be useful at times, but they cannot fully replace fetal tissue.”
For example, with the Zika virus, “by studying fetal tissue, we are learning how Zika attacks the brain cells, producing malformations like microcephaly… That is not possible with other research models because they can’t mimic [brain tissue].” She noted the problems with suggested alternatives — “tissues from miscarriages often have abnormalities; fetal cell lines [often have flaws]… Adult stem cells can’t be used for every disorder and it’s dangerous to suggest this is the case.”
Members of the subcommittees seemed to have already decided their positions. “I appreciated the strong way you declared that fetal tissue is not necessary,” Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) said to Sander Lee and Prentice. “No one will suffer if fetal tissue research is not taking place.”
Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Va.) also had made up his mind. “The idea that stem cell research can do it all is not true and we know fetal tissue research can save lives, and… deal with lots of diseases and conditions that are life-saving,” he said, adding that fetal tissue research is in a way “pro-life” because it helped in the development of, for example, emtricitabine/tenofovir disoproxil fumarate (Truvada), which is taken prophylactically to prevent HIV.
Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) asked Sander Lee and Prentice how healthcare institutions could help researchers get access to fetal tissue alternatives. Prentice suggested they form a donation network for neonatal tissues or adult stem cells. Lee suggested improving access to neonatal thymus tissue as well as discarded heart valve tissue.
Supporting fetal tissue research used to be a bipartisan effort, noted Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.). When President Ronald Reagan established a fetal tissue panel to evaluate the science behind fetal tissue research, the panel concluded that supporting the research was “acceptable public policy,” and passed a law to that effect with “overwhelming” support from both parties, she said.