Francis Collins

Stephen Voss

NIH chief defends use of human fetal tissue as opponents decry it before Congress

A long-simmering debate about the ethics of using fetal tissue from elective abortions in biomedical research heated up today in Washington, D.C. National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins this morning defended human fetal tissue research as scientifically and ethically justified at a meeting of an agency advisory panel. At about the same time, the scientific community and opponents of fetal tissue studies faced off at a congressional hearing looking into alternatives. The two developments came as President Donald Trump’s administration is scrutinizing the use of fetal tissue in federally funded research.

At today's meeting today of NIH’s Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD) in Bethesda, Maryland, Collins noted that NIH’s parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), is auditing federal purchases of fetal tissue and that NIH has just announced it will spend up to $20 million on research on alternatives. He called that effort “scientifically, highly justified.” At the same time, fetal tissue “will continue to be the mainstay,” he said, adding: “There is strong evidence that scientific benefits come from fetal tissue research, [which] can be done with [an] ethical framework.”

In September, HHS canceled a U.S. Food and Drug Administration contract to purchase fetal tissue for drug testing and announced it was launching a review of all federally funded research that uses fetal tissue obtained after elective abortions. Last week, the department told researchers on an NIH contract at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), that it was allowing only a 90-day renewal of an annual contract that funds the use of fetal tissue to produce mice with humanlike immune systems, pending the outcome of the review. And as Science first reported, NIH acknowledged last week that a lab within the NIH intramural research program had to suspend an HIV research project this past September because NIH has halted procurement of fetal tissue by its own scientists.

NIH clarified yesterday that although a second lab at the National Eye Institute is also using fetal tissue, it can rely on frozen supplies so the pause won’t immediately affect it. The agency also revealed that a third lab will need new fetal tissue by 31 January 2019. That lab is part of the National Cancer Institute’s pioneering work on using immune cells called T cells to treat cancer.

NIH looks to restart HIV project

Speaking with reporters today at the ACD meeting, NIH Principal Deputy Director Lawrence Tabak said he was personally to blame for the HIV project’s shutdown, which resulted from “a miscommunication.” He said he did not realize when the pause was communicated to the scientists that they had an immediate need for new tissue. “We’re now figuring out ways to address that,” Tabak said. And NIH said it is also examining how to prevent the pause from disrupting the cancer research.

The HHS review, NIH officials added, is limited to intramural acquisitions and the single contract to UCSF. But an NIH spokesperson referred to HHS a question about whether the review will eventually extend to every project in NIH’s roughly $80 million portfolio of extramural grants to academic researchers who use fetal tissue. An HHS spokesperson did not respond by press time.

Collins told reporters “there are certain areas where it’s hard to imagine that we would know what we know without the access to fetal tissue,” such as work on how the Zika virus infects brain cells and causes microcephaly in utero. He said the administration, led by Assistant Secretary for Health Brett Giroir, simply "wants to assure the skeptics about the value of fetal tissue research [and] that this is being done according to all the appropriate regulations, guidelines, and oversight.”

“Even for somebody who is very supportive of the pro-life position, you can make a strong case for this being an ethical stance,” Collins told reporters. “That if something can be done with these tissues that might save somebody’s life downstream, perhaps that’s a better choice than discarding them.”

Asked what will happen if HHS determines the contracts did not meet those regulations, Collins said: “I guess we’ll have to cross that bridge when we get to it.”

Tense testimony

As Collins was speaking, a House of Representatives committee was hearing testimony on fetal tissue research from witnesses who gave diametrically opposing views of its necessity.

“Modern alternatives have overtaken any need for fresh fetal tissue,” David Prentice, vice president and research director the Charlotte Lozier Institute in Arlington, Virginia, told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s Subcommittee on Government Operations.

“We never needed fetal tissue to begin with,” added Tara Sander Lee, a scientist who is also an associate scholar at the Lozier Institute, which opposes fetal tissue research. Prentice and Sander Lee were invited to testify by the subcommittee’s Republicans.

Both pointed to adult stem cells, induced pluripotent stem cells, and organoids as viable alternatives to human fetal tissue.

Their views, however, were vigorously disputed by a third witness, Sally Temple, invited to testify by subcommittee Democrats. She countered that for understanding many diseases and developing drugs against some of them, “Fetal tissue remains essential and it is simply wrong to suggest otherwise.” Temple is a former president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research and scientific director of the Neural Stem Cell Institute in Rensselaer, New York.

Temple, responding to a question about the implications of ending U.S.-funded fetal tissue research, said: “I have spoken to many of my colleagues and the word that they have used over [and over] again is devastating. That this will essentially cripple many of the important lines of investigation for therapy development that are ongoing.”

One scientist who was not present at the hearing also weighed in on the debate, submitting a letter to the subcommittee disputing how Prentice and Sander Lee have interpreted a recent paper he and colleagues published in Stem Cell Reports. The paper reports that researchers were able to use stem cells from umbilical cord blood and thymuses obtained from newborn babies who had undergone heart surgery to develop mice with humanlike immune systems. Prentice and Sander Lee have pointed to the paper—and did again in their testimony today—as obviating the need for human fetal tissue to develop humanized mice, which are an important tool for developing drugs against HIV and cancer.

But in the letter, Matthew Brown, a postdoc in the lab of James Thomson at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, rejected that notion. “It is premature to make generalizable conclusions about the [mouse we have developed] replacing fetal tissue … in all humanized mouse research applications,” he wrote. He noted, for instance, that it’s not known whether the mouse can be infected with HIV.

The hearing was tense and adversarial at times, particularly as Republican lawmakers grilled Temple. Subcommittee chairman Mark Meadows (R–NC) repeatedly reminded Temple that she was under oath and asked how she could reach a conclusion so diametrically opposed to Prentice and Sander Lee.

“You need to really delve into the details,” she responded, adding with a swipe at the other witnesses: “which is why we rely on experts in our community who are truly experts in fetal tissue models … and the consensus opinion is that [proposed] alternatives are not sufficient.”

Next week, Giroir is leading a workshop at NIH to discuss alternatives to using fetal tissue to make humanized mice such as induced pluripotent stem cells. The meeting, which will be closed to the public, will include scientists from universities and the nonprofit mouse supplier Jackson Laboratories in Bar Harbor, Maine, which makes mouse models.

In his comments today, Collins noted that even if such work finds promising alternatives, “you’re going to have to compare it to the current standard, which is using fetal tissue.”