Megan Sykes, an immunologist at Columbia University, has spent years using human fetal tissue to develop a mouse with a humanlike immune system, which mimics how type 1 diabetes develops in humans. The tissue is donated after elective abortions, and the mice are testbeds for potential diabetes treatments. But last week, she learned that President Donald Trump, acting on a priority of advocacy groups opposed to abortion, had issued a new policy that is likely to cause lengthy delays the next time she seeks U.S. government grants for her work—and could even choke off federal funding for all studies that use fetal tissue. The policy “is incredibly disappointing,” Sykes says, because it is a “politically motivated decree” that could derail numerous disease research efforts.
The new Trump policy, issued 5 June after a 9-month review led by officials at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), has three major components. One kills a long-standing contract between the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, and the University of California (UC), San Francisco, under which the university used fetal tissue to develop humanized mice for HIV drug testing. Another ends research using fetal tissue conducted by any scientist directly employed by NIH. The third and widest-reaching provision adds a lengthy and uncertain step to NIH’s process for awarding new or renewal grants to university scientists, such as Sykes, for studies that use human fetal tissue. It requires HHS to appoint a separate 14- to 20-member ethics advisory board to review each proposal that NIH reviewers have found worthy of funding. The review of up to 6 months will result in a funding recommendation to the HHS secretary, who can accept or reject the advice.
Enacting the new policy “was the president’s decision …. to protect the dignity of human life,” Judd Deere, deputy White House press secretary, told Science. It was applauded by antiabortion activists, whose lobbying prompted HHS to launch its review of U.S.-funded fetal tissue research in September 2018. “This is a major pro-life victory,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List in Washington, D.C.