The researcher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity on the advice of his university, said the email from NIH told him he could send in a final proposal revision “without [human fetal tissue] related studies” in its scientific description and a revised budget “without the purchase of HFT.”
According to NIH, the new board reviewed 14 grant and contract applications, all of which qualified for funding based on the institutes’ regular scientific reviews. Agency officials declined to answer questions about how the board voted on the ethics of the applications. The board is expected to send a report containing its recommendations within two weeks to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and a pair of congressional committees.
The Trump administration has handled the board with such secrecy that even members were not informed of the identities of their fellow members until two hours before their virtual meeting, according to two individuals familiar with these events who spoke on the condition of anonymity about private interactions. And members were required to sign strict nondisclosure agreements about their work.
The board’s chair is Paige Comstock Cunningham, a former president of Americans United for Life, an antiabortion group, who is interim president of Taylor University, an evangelical Christian college. She has testified before Congress against fetal tissue research.
Of the 15-person board, 10 have records of opposition to abortion, fetal tissue research or both, with five of them affiliated with the Charlotte Lozier Institute, the research arm of the antiabortion Susan B. Anthony List.
One board member, Lawrence Goldstein, a senior researcher at the University of California at San Diego, has used fetal tissue in his work.
The board’s creation and recommendations are the latest stage of an effort by the Trump administration starting last year to restrict the use of biomedical research that uses human tissue from elective abortions. Social conservatives, crucial to President Trump’s political base, regard such research as unethical and have long contended taxpayer money should not support it.
Many scientists counter that fetal tissue is an important research tool that has led to advances in understanding and treatment of major diseases, from AIDS to Zika, and could be helpful in the race to develop cures and vaccines for the novel coronavirus. There is no data to suggest that women’s decision whether to seek abortions is influenced by the possibility that the tissue could be devoted to research.
In the late 1980s, researchers pioneered the technique of breeding mice with deficient immune systems and then transplanting into them a small bit of immune system tissue from aborted human fetuses. These “humanized mice” develop the equivalent of a human immune system and thus are considered valuable lab animals in studying a variety of major diseases.
Long an ideological flash point, federal funding of research using the material was permitted consistently after the early 1990s. In June 2019, however, Trump rewrote rules to limit such research; his aides were eager to point out the president made the decision over the objections of some of his top health-care advisers.
For scientists who work directly for the government, the new policy ended federal funding of all fetal tissue research.
For the many scientists in academia and other outside labs who rely on NIH funding, the rule change was subtler. Researchers could still apply for new or renewed grants and contracts. But if the proposals were deemed worth funding by NIH’s normal scientific reviews, projects submitted after late last September would face an extra hurdle: an ethics screening by a new advisory board, which would send its recommendations to Azar, who has the final say.
In late spring 2019, a senior administration official said the government, which supports the vast majority of fetal tissue research in the United States, was funding about 200 academic and other outside labs using the material.
By the start of this year, some researchers were redesigning their work to sidestep fetal tissue. Others had proposals in limbo, with little sense of when a board would exist. NIH published a Federal Register notice in late December, saying that another notice would be forthcoming, inviting nominations to such a board. The second notice arrived in late February. It said the board must send its report by mid-August and would disband a month after that. It did not say when the board would be created.
The rules called for NIH to suggest names to Azar, who was to make the appointments. It is unclear how many board members came from NIH’s list or what role the White House played.
Friday’s meeting by a Zoom call was the board’s first and only gathering. During introductions as part of a 42-minute public session, few members disclosed their ideological leanings.
When it was his turn, David Prentice identified himself as the Lozier Institute’s research director, then said: “I have over 40 years experience in laboratory research, teaching as well as mentoring students in the areas of cell biology, developmental biology, embriology, molecular biology.”
After the introductions and brief public comments by three fetal tissue proponents and two opponents, the board went into what was scheduled to be five hours of closed discussions and votes on the proposals.
Views of the board’s makeup diverge along predictable fault lines. Mallory Quigley, spokeswoman for the Susan B. Anthony List, said, “[P]ast commissions on similar topics . . . have leaned heavily toward people in favor of abortion-on-demand and research that destroys embryos. We are pleased and encouraged to see this board is more properly balanced.”
But Christine Mummery, president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, said, “We are disappointed that some of the members of the advisory board are long-standing opponents of stem cell research who have been prominent sources of disinformation related to medical research . . . We fear that the most meritorious science will be further undermined by ideology just when America and the world desperately need the most promising medical research to defeat viral diseases.”
The application of the researcher invited to modify his proposal — and that of a scientist who received a similar note from NIH — was to try to develop an alternative to fetal tissue, as the administration requires.
The invitation for proposals last year said applications must include testing a novel research model against a fetal tissue model, to make sure the results were the same. Told that such comparisons were no longer welcome, the researcher said, “We are going to try to keep it as much as possible. We are going to take out the fetal tissue controls.”
The other scientist, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of jeopardizing the application, said NIH had not explained whether that application was going through the board’s review. Both researchers said they had initially assumed they would not be subject to review by the board because their proposals were submitted a few weeks before the late September start date for the ethics evaluations.
One of the researchers found out earlier that his was included, after all. The other scientist was told that NIH staff were not at the closed meeting and did not know.