Trump halts foetal tissue research by gov’t scientists

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WASHINGTON, DC, USA (AP) — The Trump Administration said yesterday it is ending medical research by g overnment scientists that uses human foetal tissue, overriding the advice of scientists who say it has led to life-saving medical advances and handing abortion opponents a major victory.

The Health and Human Services Department said in a statement that government-funded research by universities that involves foetal tissue can continue for now, subject to additional scrutiny — although it also ended one major university project that used the tissue to test HIV treatments.

The policy changes will not affect privately funded research, officials said.

Ending the use of foetal tissue by the National Institutes of Health has been a priority for anti-abortion activists, a core element of President Donald Trump’s political base. A senior administration official said it was the president’s call. The official wasn’t authorised to publicly discuss internal deliberations and spoke on condition of anonymity.

But research using foetal tissue has led to life-saving advances, including development of vaccines for rubella and rabies and drugs to treat the HIV virus. Scientists around the country denounced the decision, saying that foetal tissue was critically needed for research on HIV vaccines, treatments that harness the body’s immune system to battle cancer, and a list of other health threats, including some to foetuses themselves.

“Prohibiting valuable research that uses foetal tissue that is otherwise going to be discarded doesn’t make any sense,” said Dr Lawrence Goldstein, a regenerative medicine specialist at the University of California, San Diego. “It blocks important future research vital to the development of new therapies.”

The government’s own top medical scientist, NIH Director Francis Collins, said as recently as last December that he believes “there’s strong evidence that scientific benefits come from foetal tissue research“, and that fetal tissue, rather than any alternatives, would “continue to be the mainstay” for certain types of research for the foreseeable future.

“Today, foetal tissue is still making an impact, with clinical trials underway using cells from foetal tissue to treat conditions including Parkinson’s disease, ALS, and spinal cord injury,” said Doug Melton, co-director of Harvard’s Stem Cell Institute and president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research.

Last year, the administration announced a review of whether taxpayer dollars were being properly spent on fetal tissue research. As a result, NIH froze procurement of new tissue. Yesterday, the administration also said it is not renewing an expiring contract with the University of California, San Francisco that used fetal tissue to create a human-like immune system in mice for HIV research.

The department said it was trying to balance “pro-life” and “pro-science” imperatives.

Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, said in a statement that the administration has “once again done the right thing in restoring a culture of life to our government”.

According to the American Medical Association (AMA), research with human foetal tissue research has led to the development of a number of important research and medical advances, such as the development of polio vaccine. Fetal tissue, it said, has also been used to study the mechanism of viral infections and to diagnose viral infections and inherited diseases, as well as to develop transplant therapies for a variety of conditions, for example, parkinsonism.

However, it said the use of foetal tissue for research purposes also raises a number of ethical considerations, including the degree to which a woman’s decision to have an abortion might be influenced by the opportunity to donate foetal tissue. Concerns, it said, have also been raised about potential conflict of interest when there is possible financial benefit to those who are involved in the retrieval, storage, testing, preparation, and delivery of foetal tissues.

The AMA said:

“To protect the interests of pregnant women as well as the integrity of science, it said physicians who are involved in research that uses human foetal tissues should:

(a) Abstain from offering money in exchange for foetal tissue.

(b) In all instances, obtain the woman’s voluntary, informed consent in keeping with ethics guidance, including when using foetal tissue from a spontaneous abortion for purposes of research or transplantation. Informed consent, it said, includes a disclosure of the nature of the research including the purpose of using foetal tissue, as well as informing the woman of a right to refuse to participate.”

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