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HHS to Stop Fetal Tissue Research Within NIH

WASHINGTON — The federal government will stop funding intramural research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) involving fetal tissue derived from elective abortions, the Department of Health and Human Services said Wednesday.

“Promoting the dignity of human life from conception to natural death is one of the very top priorities of President Trump’s administration,” the department said in a statement. “Intramural research that requires new acquisition of fetal tissue from elective abortions will not be conducted.”

The department said current NIH-funded research at academic centers with abortion-derived fetal tissue can continue, however, and new projects can still be funded, though only after a special ethics review.

The HHS statement began by explaining that the department had terminated an agreement between Advanced Bioscience Resources and the FDA that provided human fetal tissue from elective abortions to develop testing protocols.

“The department was not sufficiently assured that contract included the appropriate protections applicable to fetal tissue research or met all other procurement requirements,” the statement said. “As a result, HHS also initiated a comprehensive review of all HHS research involving human fetal tissue from elective abortions to ensure consistency with statutes and regulations governing such research, and to ensure the adequacy of procedures and oversight of this research in light of the serious regulatory, moral, and ethical considerations involved.”

During the audit and review process, the agency had temporarily been extending a contract with the University of California San Francisco that involved research using fetal tissue. “The current extension expires on June 5, 2019, and there will be no further extensions,” the HHS said.

Current extramural fetal tissue research funded by NIH grants — that is, conducted at universities and other centers outside the NIH — won’t be affected by the new policy, but “[for] new extramural research grant applications or current research projects in the competitive renewal process (generally every 5 years) that propose to use fetal tissue from elective abortions and that are recommended for potential funding … an ethics advisory board will be convened to review the research proposal and recommend whether, in light of the ethical considerations, NIH should fund the research project — pursuant to a law passed by Congress,” the statement said.

Anti-abortion groups welcomed the decision. “The Trump Administration has rightfully taken action to separate federal research funding from the abortion industry,” Melanie Israel, a research associate at the Heritage Foundation, a right-leaning think tank, said in a statement. “Good science and life-affirming, ethical research aren’t mutually exclusive. Indeed, it is ethically derived sources — such as discarded surgical tissue and adult stem cells — that have contributed to successful treatments for a variety of ailments, not tissue obtained from elective abortions.”

But others were not happy. “The ATS [American Thoracic Society] is very disturbed by the administration’s actions to halt certain NIH scientific research using fetal tissue,” ATS Research Advocacy Committee Chair Veena Antony, MD, said in a statement. “Scientific research using fetal tissue is vital for the development of new treatments for many deadly diseases and conditions, such as cystic fibrosis and acute lung injury. There are no alternative research models that can replace all fetal tissue research.”

“The ATS urges the administration to restore federal funding for fetal tissue research across all agencies, including all intramural and extramural research, so that these efforts to develop life-saving treatments and cures can continue,” she said.

“I think it’s ultimately a terrible, nonsensical policy,” Larry Goldstein, distinguished professor in the University of California San Diego’s department of cellular and molecular medicine, who has advised scientific groups that use fetal tissue, told the Washington Post. “Valuable research that is directed at helping to develop therapies for terrible diseases will be stopped. And tissue that would be used will be thrown out instead.”

In the meantime, the HHS said it is looking at other ways to conduct research. “In December 2018, NIH announced a $20 million funding opportunity for research to develop, demonstrate, and validate experimental models that do not rely on human fetal tissue from elective abortions. HHS is committed to providing additional funding to support the development and validation of alternative models.”