Fetal brain tissue is used for federally funded studies of Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases and conditions.

Steve Gschmeissner/Science Source

Trump administration restricts fetal tissue research

After a 9-month review, President Donald Trump’s administration is moving to eliminate some federally funded research that relies on fetal tissue from elective abortions and to more tightly regulate the rest.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced today that it will no longer allow government scientists working for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to conduct studies that use fetal tissue. Such intramural studies received about $31 million last year.

HHS also said university scientists who want NIH funding for such studies must now have each proposal examined by an ethics advisory board. The new policy will not affect currently funded extramural projects; there are about 200 such studies, which received about $84 million in 2018. But the new policy will apply to researchers who apply for a renewal of a current grant or for new grants.

The administration is also killing a roughly $2 million annual contract between NIH and the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), which for years has used fetal tissue to create mice with humanlike immune systems for HIV drug testing. In its statement announcing the action, HHS declared, “Promoting the dignity of human life from conception to natural death is one of the very top priorities of President Trump’s administration.” A statement from UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood, however, called the move "politically motivated, short-sighted and not based on sound science."

Groups that oppose fetal tissue research and had encouraged the Trump administration to undertake the review are applauding the moves. “This is a major pro-life victory and we thank President Trump for taking decisive action. It is outrageous and disgusting that we have been complicit, through our taxpayer dollars, in the experimentation using baby body parts,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a Washington, D.C., lobbying group that opposes abortion.

David Prentice, vice president and research director of the Charlotte Lozier Institute in Arlington, Virginia, the research arm of the Susan B. Anthony list, added: “Our government will now invest in effective research methods that do not rely on the destruction of human life.”

Opponents of restrictions on fetal tissue research, which they say plays an important role in understanding diseases and developing treatments, were disappointed. The HHS announcement “is a clear indication that this administration values symbolic statements over research aimed at saving lives,” says Alta Charo, a lawyer and bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. “It is yet another example of this administration’s determination to ignore evidence when setting policy.”

“I think it’s a terrible policy ultimately. If you think about it, fetal tissue will be incinerated instead of using it for valuable research. What’s the sense in that?” says Lawrence Goldstein, a neuroscientist at UC San Diego, who uses human fetal tissue for his work studying Alzheimer’s disease.

Under the new policy, extramural researchers who submit applications that pass scientific review and score high enough to be funded will now encounter a new and time-consuming layer of review. Under a procedure described in a 2006 law that governs NIH policy, HHS will need to announce in the Federal Register that it plans to assemble an ethics advisory board to review each proposed grant and invite public nominations for that board. The board would be made up of 14 to 20 people from various backgrounds, including at least one theologian, one ethicist, one physician, and one attorney. No more than half of the panel members can be scientists. The HHS secretary must wait at least 30 days after the publication to appoint the board. The board will then have up to 150 days to recommend to the secretary whether the proposed research should be funded.

Even then, the Secretary can overrule the committee if he finds its recommendation “arbitrary and capricious.” “The whole point here is to so wrap the research in red tape that it’s impossible or at least unlikely to be feasible for many researchers to embark on this,” Charo contends.

The now-canceled UCSF contract, the latest in a series, has been in place since 2013. It was normally renewed each December; since December 2018 it has been granted two 90-day extensions. The second expires today. As recently as April, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases had indicated it was preparing to grant another 90-day extension.

According to HHS, the new ban on fetal tissue research by NIH scientists will end three active projects. Each project will be permitted to use up its current store of fetal tissue before shutting down. One of the projects, at NIH’s Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Montana, was beginning to progress after it was stalled when the Trump administration review was first announced in September 2018. The study, which used fetal tissue to create mice with humanlike immune systems, was examining whether an antibody might prevent HIV from establishing reservoirs in the human body.

*Correction, 6 June, 11 a.m.: The amounts of NIH intramural and extramural spending in 2018 on projects involving fetal tissue have been corrected. (The total NIH spending of $115 million in 2018 remains the same.)