Health

NIH Reverses Ban on Federally Funded Fetal Tissue Research

WASHINGTON — The NIH has reversed a Trump-era ban on federally funded fetal tissue research.

The announcement on Friday from the office of NIH director Francis Collins, MD, PhD, began with a bit of history. “On June 5, 2019, HHS announced that NIH intramural research that requires new acquisition of human fetal tissue from elective abortions will not be conducted,” and also required ethics board review of any extramural research, it said. “This notice informs the extramural research community that HHS is reversing its 2019 decision that all research applications for NIH grants and contracts proposing the use of human fetal tissue from elective abortions will be reviewed by an Ethics Advisory Board.”

The issue of fetal tissue research has long been controversial, especially when it comes to taxpayer-funded research. “There is no scientific necessity to continue taxpayer funding of fetal tissue [research],” said David Prentice, PhD, vice president and research director at the Charlotte Lozier Institute, at a 2018 House hearing on the topic. “Taxpayer funding should go to successful patient-focused alternatives.” He gave examples such as adult stem cells being used to develop treatments for stroke, multiple sclerosis, and sickle cell anemia. The newest shingles vaccine — which is better than the older one — is being made using a non-fetal tissue cell, Prentice said.

Another 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, New York. “The alternatives mentioned may be useful at times, but they cannot fully replace fetal tissue.”

Congressional Democrats praised the Biden administration’s change in policy. “We applaud the Biden administration and Secretary Xavier Becerra for prioritizing science and reversing the Trump administration’s arbitrary barriers to both extramural and intramural researchers on the use of fetal tissue in scientific research,” representatives Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.), and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said in a statement issued Friday.

“This week, we led dozens of our colleagues in requesting this reversal — underscoring the immense value that fetal tissue research adds to advancing scientific and medical knowledge,” they continued. “The use of fetal tissue in scientific research has been crucial for medical advancements in the treatment and study of hemophilia, cystic fibrosis, Zika, HIV, ALS, Parkinson’s disease, and even COVID-19. During a time when our country necessitates recovery that prioritizes science over politics, this is an integral step towards protecting the advancements of our scientific community.”

But others were not pleased. “We condemn this sickening decision by the Biden administration,” said Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee, an anti-abortion organization, in a statement posted Friday on the organization’s website. “Tiny human babies are aborted by abortionists and then exploited to be farmed for their organs and tissue for use in experiments. The Biden administration and HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra have dismantled the process of making researchers meet any ethical standards when it comes to harvesting the body parts of aborted children for research.”

  • Joyce Frieden oversees MedPage Today’s Washington coverage, including stories about Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, healthcare trade associations, and federal agencies. She has 35 years of experience covering health policy. Follow

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