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Trump freeze on NIH fetal tissue use puts disease research in limbo


The Trump administration has reportedly put a freeze on the procurement of human fetal tissue by NIH scientists, leaving the future of HIV and cancer research in question and researchers concerned whether this signaled the first step toward a more extensive ban.

Since September, National Institutes of Health researchers haven’t been able to procure new human fetal tissue to conduct experiments as HHS launched an audit of the nature of the procurements. The development was first reported in Science magazine.

In its announcement at that time, the agency stated it was canceling its contract with California-based Advanced Bioscience Resources, a provider of fetal tissue for the Food and Drug Administration, out of concerns there were not “appropriate protections applicable to fetal tissue research.”

In an email response, HHS spokeswoman Caitlyn Oakley pointed out that the move applied only to scientists on NIH’s staff, and that researchers were asked to notify NIH leaders if new supplies of human fetal tissue were needed to prevent disruptions in current projects. She said there has been no pause in procurement of human fetal tissue among outside laboratories that receive NIH funding.

“The intent was never to cause research to stop,” Oakley said. “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.”

But the temporary ban does impact outside labs that are working in collaboration with NIH-staffed scientists, according to Dr. Walter Greene, director of the Gladstone Center for HIV Cure Research at the University of California at San Francisco.

He said current work on a possible HIV cure has been pushed back several months ever since the HHS announced its ban in September because his lab is working with researchers at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Mont.

“That just knocked the legs off the table of our research,” Greene said about the fetal tissue ban.

After the ban was put in place, researchers at Rocky Mountain first learned that they could request to procure more fetal tissue when they read about it in news reports; they were not directly notified by NIH, according to Greene.

They currently have supplies for one experiment. Even if Rocky Mountain is approved to procure additional fetal tissue, the delay has set back work until at least April.

Many view the move as a response to anti-abortion supporters’ calls to end research using human fetal tissue because it creates a market for human body parts.

In September, 85 Republican House members wrote a letter to the FDA objecting to its contract with Advanced Bioscience.

“Unborn children are not commodities to be bought and sold,” the letter said. “The practice of conducting research using the body parts of children whose lives have been violently ended by abortion is abhorrent.”

Researchers agree that there are no current alternatives to fetal tissue for research on diseases like HIV or cancer. The cells that form at that stage of human development have different properties than ones at later stages.

Greene said the current ban affects a relatively small number of researchers. But he worried what could happen if the administration decided to expand the ban to all labs that receive NIH funding.

“There will be a lot of people who will be really upset if it goes to include the extramural program,” Greene said.