Scientists Feel Chill of Crackdown on Fetal Tissue Research - NBC10 Boston

Scientists Feel Chill of Crackdown on Fetal Tissue Research

Different types of tissue left over from elective abortions have been used in scientific research for decades, and the work has been credited with leading to lifesaving vaccines and other advances

Find NBC Boston in your area

Channel 10 on most providers

Channel 15, 60 and 8 Over the Air

    processing...

    NEWSLETTERS

    Scientists Feel Chill of Crackdown on Fetal Tissue Research
    Patrick Semansky/AP
    In this Aug. 10, 2015, file photo, Christine Jelinek, a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University, prepares to load a tray of vials containing cerebral spinal fluid into a liquid chromatograph in Baltimore. Dr. Akhilesh Pandey, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University, said his research analyzes both adult and fetal tissue, and by identifying which proteins are present, he can get clues that could be used to help detect cancer in adults earlier.

    To save babies from brain-damaging birth defects, University of Pittsburgh scientist Carolyn Coyne studies placentas from fetuses that otherwise would be discarded — and she's worried this kind of research is headed for the chopping block.

    The Trump administration is cracking down on fetal tissue research , with new hurdles for government-funded scientists around the country who call the special cells vital for fighting a range of health threats. Already, the administration has shut down one university's work using fetal tissue to test HIV treatments, and is ending other fetal tissue research at the National Institutes of Health.

    "I knew this was something that's going to trickle down to the rest of us," said Coyne. She uses the placenta, which people may not think of as fetal tissue but technically is classified as such because the fetus produced it, to study how viruses such as Zika get past that protective barrier early in pregnancy.

    "It seems to me what we're moving toward is a ban," she added. If so, when it comes to unraveling what happens in pregnancy and fetal development, "we're going to stay ignorant to a lot of things."

    Multiple States Pass Abortion Laws, Confusion Ensues

    [NATL] Multiple States Pass Laws Restricting Abortion, Confusion Ensues

    As multiple states pass laws banning many abortions, confusion is swirling about what exactly that means for women.

    (Published Friday, May 17, 2019)

    Different types of tissue left over from elective abortions have been used in scientific research for decades, and the work has been credited with leading to lifesaving vaccines and other advances. Under orders from President Donald Trump, the Health and Human Services Department abruptly announced on Wednesday the new restrictions on taxpayer-funded research, but not privately funded work.

    Aside from the cancellation of an HIV-related project at the University of California, San Francisco, university-led projects that are funded by the NIH — estimated to be fewer than 200 — aren't affected right away.

    But as researchers seek to renew their funding or propose new studies, HHS said it will have to pass an extra layer of review, beyond today's strict scientific scrutiny. Each project will have a federal ethics board appointed to recommend whether NIH should grant the money.

    HHS hasn't offered details but under the law authorizing the review process, that board must include not just biomedical experts but a theologian, and the nation's health secretary can overrule its advice.

    "I predict over time we will see a slow and steady elimination of federal funding for research that uses fetal tissue, regardless of how necessary it is," said University of Wisconsin law professor Alta Charo, a nationally recognized bioethics expert.

    Necessity is the crux of a fierce debate between abortion foes and scientists about whether there are alternatives to fetal tissue for research.

    'Late Night': A Closer Look at Alabama's Abortion Ban

    [NATL] 'Late Night': A Closer Look at Alabama's Abortion Ban

    Seth Meyers takes a closer look at the president arguing in court that Congress can’t investigate him and the abortion ban recently passed in Alabama.

    (Published Friday, May 17, 2019)

    Zika offers a glimpse at the difficulty. Somehow, the Zika virus can sneak from the mother's bloodstream across the placenta, which protects and nourishes the fetus, and target the fetus' brain. It's something researchers hope to learn to block.

    Studying the placentas of small animals or even monkeys isn't a substitute because they differ from the human organ, said Emory University researcher Mehul Suthar. For example, the specific type of placental cell where Zika can lurk in humans isn't thought to be present in mouse placentas.

    And because the placenta continually changes as the fetus that created it grows, first-trimester tissue may show a very different vulnerability than a placenta that's expelled during full-term birth, when it's no longer defined as fetal tissue but as medical waste.

    Suthar recently submitted a new grant application to study first- and second-trimester placental tissue, and is worried about its fate under the still uncertain ethics provision.

    It "sounds a bit murky as to what the impact could be," he said. It could be small, "or it could be an outright ban on what we're doing."

    Anti-abortion groups argue there are alternatives, such as stem cells, growing organ-like clumps of cells in lab dishes, or using tissue taken from newborns as they have heart surgery.

    Ala. Lawmakers Pass Bill Banning Virtually All Abortions

    [NATL] Ala. Lawmakers Pass Bill Banning Virtually All Abortions

    Alabama lawmakers have approved a bill banning virtually all abortions, including for women impregnated via rape or incest, making the act a felony at any stage of pregnancy with no exceptions. The bill now heads to Alabama Governor Kay Ivey to sign.

    (Published Wednesday, May 15, 2019)

    Indeed, NIH is funding a $20 million program to research alternatives to fetal tissue and to prove whether they work as well.

    "Taxpayer funding ought to go to promote alternatives that are already being used in the production of treatments, vaccines and medicines, and to expand approaches that do not depend on the destruction of unborn children," said Mallory Quigley of the Susan B. Anthony List, which works to elect anti-abortion candidates to public office.

    But dozens of medical and science organizations have told HHS there is no substitute for fetal tissue in studying certain — not all — health disorders, such as HIV, Zika, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, spinal cord injury, and a variety of eye diseases.

    To Pittsburgh's Coyne, part of the political debate is a "completely unsubstantiated belief that not allowing research and science is going to prevent or stop abortions, which is not the case."

    Medical research using fetal tissue won't stop but will move to other countries, said Charo, who advised the Obama administration. The United Kingdom, Australia, Singapore and China are among the countries using fetal tissue to seek breakthroughs.

    "Other countries work with this in a regulated fashion and they will continue to outstrip us," she said. "We have allowed patients' interests to become collateral damage in the abortion wars."