The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

New restriction on fetal tissue research ‘was the president’s decision’

The National Institutes of Health.
The National Institutes of Health. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The Trump administration on Wednesday ended funding of medical research by government scientists using fetal tissue and canceled a multimillion-dollar contract for a university laboratory that relies on the material to test new HIV therapies.

The determination to tighten federal support for an ideologically polarizing aspect of medical research was made by President Trump himself, a White House spokesman confirmed.

“This was the president’s decision,” said spokesman Judd Deere, calling it “another important policy . . . to protect the dignity of human life.”

The change represents a victory for antiabortion advocates, who immediately lauded the change, and a major disappointment to scientists who say the tissue collected from elective abortions has been instrumental to unlocking the secrets of diseases that range from AIDS to cancers to Zika, as well as to developing vaccines and treatments for illnesses such as Parkinson’s disease.

The Department of Health and Human Services announced the policy shift in a six-paragraph statement. “Promoting the dignity of human life from conception to natural death is one of the very top priorities of President Trump’s administration,” the statement said.

Scientists were incensed. “I think it’s ultimately a terrible, nonsensical policy,” said Larry Goldstein, distinguished professor in the University of California at San Diego’s department of cellular and molecular medicine, who has advised scientific groups that use fetal tissue. “Valuable research that is directed at helping to develop therapies for terrible diseases will be stopped. And tissue that would be used will be thrown out instead.”

Immediately affected is a University of California at San Francisco laboratory whose multiyear contract with the National Institutes of Health to test potential HIV therapies using “humanized mice” was terminated for unspecified ethical reasons. The government has been the lab’s sole source of funding.

UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood called the decision “abrupt” and said that the school had “exercised appropriate oversight and complied with all state and federal laws. We believe this decision to be politically motivated, shortsighted and not based on sound science.”

No other funding of fetal tissue research by nongovernmental research laboratories would be interrupted, the statement said. Future applications for federal support will be subject to review by an ethics advisory board created for each one.

NIH supports the vast majority of fetal tissue research in the United States. It funds about 200 academic and other outside labs that use the material, according to a senior administration official who spoke about such details on the condition of anonymity. Three research projects conducted by NIH employees are affected by the policy change, according to the official, who said that such researchers will be able to continue the work until their supply of fetal tissue runs out. After that, they will not be allowed to procure any more.

A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity about internal dynamics, said that Vice President Pence, an ardent abortion opponent, worked closely with HHS officials to develop the policy.

Wednesday’s announcement triggered an outpouring of praise by leading antiabortion groups. “This is yet another step by the Trump administration in the march to restore the sanctity of all human life in America,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, who called the decision “one based upon the desire of this administration to use taxpayer dollars in the pursuit of science that is both ethical and effective.”

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, which promotes legislators and laws that seek to limit abortion, called the decision “a major pro-life victory . . . It is outrageous and disgusting that we have been complicit, through our taxpayer dollars, in the experimentation using baby body parts.”

Following increasing pressure from such activists on the right, and like-minded Republicans in Congress and the administration, HHS last September announced a comprehensive review of all fetal tissue research “in light of the serious regulatory, moral, and ethical considerations involved.”

Wednesday’s announcement also turned on its head an assurance to scientists late last year by a top HHS official at an invitation-only NIH workshop on fetal tissue research. Brett Giroir, assistant secretary for health, told scientists then that for researchers employed by nongovernmental labs, there would be no interruption in funding under the old policy, as long as experiments comply with the ethics guidelines of their universities and the federal government, a participant said.

“With these new arbitrary restrictions on research, the United States is ceding its role as the global leader in the development of cellular therapies and regenerative medicine,” said Doug Melton, a co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research. “The regulatory and legal framework in the U.S. for overseeing fetal tissue research was carefully developed with input from the public, ethicists, policymakers and scientists and ensures rigorous oversight, including that the tissue is obtained legally and with donor consent.”

The scientific community has been adamant that no alternatives to human fetal tissue have proved as effective. Opponents, however, say that newer methods, including the use of thymus tissue from newborn infants who undergo heart surgeries, appear promising. Late last year, NIH announced it would award $20 million in grants to support the development of such alternatives.

Late last year, at the NIH workshop, Giroir told participants that any alternative source of tissue “must be as predictive, as reliable and as validated as existing models,” according to a scientist who was present.

Scientists who had been encouraged by that statement were crushed to learn of the changed posture.

“I’m disappointed that NIH would think this is appropriate,” said Carolyn Coyne, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, who uses placental tissue to study viruses that affect children in the womb.

Last September, the department had also canceled a contract with a California firm, Advanced Bioscience Resources, which was a main supplier of fetal tissue implanted into laboratory mice. ABR had been targeted by the same antiabortion activists who filmed undercover videos of Planned Parenthood officials and heavily edited them in an attempt to discredit the organization.

While the fetal tissue audit was underway, the administration signaled its reluctance to keep money flowing to two laboratories that use “humanized mice,” implanted with fetal tissue for research into promising therapies to treat HIV.

In December, NIH informed a principal investigator at UCSF that it was withholding the next $2 million annual installment of a multiyear contract. NIH extended the contract in two 90-day increments. That is the funding that expires on Wednesday.

Senior NIH officials denied in December that the researcher ever was told the funds would be cut off.

That same month, a senior scientist at an NIH lab in Montana was told that he could no longer procure fetal tissue for his lab’s HIV research. The researcher was also later told NIH would continue to support his work.

Ashley Parker contributed to this article.