Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Fetal brain cells called astrocytes are used in studies on Alzheimer’s disease.

Riccardo Cassiani-Ingoni/Science Source

Research groups attend HHS ‘listening session’ on fetal tissue research amid funding fears

Science advocates who attended a “listening session” on the use of fetal tissue in medical research held today by senior officials at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in Washington, D.C., say they are optimistic that they were listened to and heard. But many researchers remain concerned about reports that President Donald Trump’s administration is considering withdrawing funding for such studies, which are fiercely opposed by antiabortion advocates. 

“It was a very good conversation. It was not a ‘check the box’ meeting,” says Kevin Wilson, director of public policy and media relations for the American Society for Cell Biology in Bethesda, Maryland.

“It was a wonderful opportunity to talk about the science,” adds Jennifer Zeitzer, director of public affairs at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), also in Bethesda. Zeitzer was accompanied by FASEB board member Patricia Morris, a reproductive biologist at The Rockefeller University in New York City.

The meeting participants also included a representative from the Society for Neuroscience in Washington, D.C. Martin Pera, a human embryonic stem cell expert at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine, attended via Skype on behalf of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, based in Skokie, Illinois. (Travel delays prevented him from attending in person.)

The off-the-record, invitation-only meeting was part of a new “review” of U.S.-funded research that involves human fetal tissue, derived from elective abortions, that would otherwise be discarded. The use of such tissue is legal under a 1993 federal law. The science advocates who attended today’s meeting left HHS officials with packets of information describing the tissue’s importance in research, from studies of how the Zika virus damages fetuses to probes of HIV biology and tests of drugs against it.

Groups opposed to abortion have long opposed the use of the tissue, and in September they wrote letters to HHS Secretary Alex Azar and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Scott Gottlieb urging them to defund the research. The same month, HHS announced it was launching the review, and FDA said it was canceling a contract for supplying fetal tissue to the agency.

The review is being spearheaded by Brett Giroir, a physician-scientist who is assistant secretary for health, and Paula Stannard, senior counselor to Azar; both were at today’s meeting. Also present in the HHS conference room were Lawrence Tabak, principal deputy director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which funded an estimated $103 million in projects using human fetal tissue this year; and Lowell Schiller, senior counselor to Gottlieb.

Fetal tissue research backers and opponents alike are watching the review process closely. Today’s meeting was one of several “listening sessions” with stakeholders that HHS has said will include abortion rights groups and ethicists, as well as academic institutions.

Abortion opponents are hoping that the end result is a shutdown of U.S. funding for research using the tissue. David Prentice, research director at the Charlotte Lozier Institute in Arlington, Virginia, which opposes human fetal tissue research, applauds the review as “timely and welcome. … It’s good to see this in-depth examination of the science, bioethics, modern alternatives, and options. My hope is for those funds to go to better science.”

Lawrence Goldstein, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, who depends on human fetal tissue for his work studying Alzheimer’s disease, says he is reserving judgment on the outcome of the process. “There’s nothing wrong with review. That’s a good thing,” he says. “But I’m watchfully waiting to see whether they can do this in an objective way.”

Some critics doubt the review will reach that objective result.

“Azar has continually painted himself as a no-nonsense technocrat, yet he continually kowtows to antiabortion groups while ignoring the scientific and medical communities,” says Mary Alice Carter, director of Equity Forward, a New York Citybased nonprofit that monitors the activity of antiabortion groups and supports human fetal tissue research.

In a related development, Politico reported today that Giroir sent a letter to Representative Mark Meadows (R–NC), who opposes abortion, assuring him that HHS is “fully committed to prioritizing, expanding, and accelerating efforts to develop and implement the use of … alternatives” to fetal tissue from elective abortions.

If HHS did decide to halt funding for human fetal tissue research, it is unclear whether the ban would apply to research grants that agencies have already awarded. Eight years ago, after a federal judge ruled that federally funded human embryonic stem cell research was illegal, in-house NIH projects were halted for 19 days, as were as reviews of new extramural proposals and pending grant payments. But NIH funds that had already been disbursed to extramural researchers were not affected.

And 4 years ago, when the federal government paused a controversial type of influenza research known as “gain of function” experiments, officials halted new grants but asked only for a “voluntary pause” on ongoing projects.

With reporting by Jocelyn Kaiser.