Scientists slam Trump administration’s fetal tissue research ban

A pair of prominent medical researchers have slammed the Trump administration’s ban on the use of fetal tissue in research, calling the move a roadblock to the ‘mission to advance medical science,’ in a new editorial.   

Research conducted using fetal tissue has led to life-saving developments like the measles vaccine and the progression of HIV into AIDS.  

But it’s acquired from recently aborted fetuses, a practice to which some have moral objections. 

On July 5, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) severed ties with the University of California, San Francisco (SF) and Dr Joseph ‘Mike’ McCune, who was conducting fetal tissue research there, by opting to not renew or extend its contract with the institution’s lab. 

It was a win for anti-abortionists, but Dr McCune and Dr Irving Weissman, of Stanford University hit back in a Tuesday letter, condemning the ban for indirectly ‘endangering the health and lives of many.’ 

On July 5, US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar (pictured) announced that the government would not longer fund or contract with scientists whose research involves fetal tissue. Scientists condemned the ban as 'endangering lives' by blocking critical research that's led to vaccines and better understanding of health issues facing pregnant women and fetuses

On July 5, US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar (pictured) announced that the government would not longer fund or contract with scientists whose research involves fetal tissue. Scientists condemned the ban as ‘endangering lives’ by blocking critical research that’s led to vaccines and better understanding of health issues facing pregnant women and fetuses

Fetal tissue has a long – if shrouded and misunderstood – history in the US. 

The use of these tissues first came to prominence when they were used to develop the polio vaccine in the 1950s. 

Polio vaccination has saved more than 16 million people worldwide from paralysis. 

About a decade later, in the 1960s, cells called fibroblasts were harvested from two electively aborted fetuses. 

In those cells the first chickenpox, rubella (which is the ‘R’ in the MMR shot), hepatitis A and one form each of the shingles and rabies vaccines were all developed. 

And today, scientists still use those same embryonic cells to develop those vaccines – half a century later – because they can continue to multiply them without collecting new fetal tissue. 

Just those two samples of electively aborted fetal tissue have had an immeasurable impact on human health. 

Embryonic cells are not like those that make up the majority of an adult’s or even a newborn baby’s body. 

They are ‘pluripotent,’ meaning that they have not yet distinguished themselves into various types of tissues. 

Embryonic stem cells are from fetal tissue are even more undifferentiated than are the stem cells in adult bone marrow. 

Scientists are developing techniques to rewind (so to speak) cell samples taken from newborns so that they return to their pluripotent form, but this process is far from perfected and ready to use for research. 

Until it is, scientists can use fetal tissue from stillborn, miscarried or aborted fetuses. 

The former two pose less of an ethical quandry, but are unpredictable, making sample collection difficult as well as more traumatic for the women who have to sign over permission for the tissue to be use in research. 

Though still a small pool, tissue from elective abortions is more readily available. 

But anti-abortion sentiments have been swelling and spreading across the US. 

In line with this movement, the Trump administration banned fetal tissue research this past summer. 

Drs McCune and Weissman argue that the tissue is still being used for vital research, including to test the safety of antiviral drugs for treating HIV, autoimmune diseases and to give scientists a better understanding of how pregnant women and their babies develop illnesses. 

‘We argue that this research has been carried out in a manner that is ethical and legal and that it has provided knowledge that has saved lives, particularly those of pregnant women, their unborn fetuses, and newborns,’ they write in Stem Cell Reports. 

Now, National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding for that research has been withdrawn. 

‘To the extent that it was motivated by the personal religious beliefs of those in the chain of authority leading to the ban, it appears that this ban also transgresses the separation of church and state,’ wrote the editorial authors. 

‘Citizens who do not adhere to the same religious belief systems will nonetheless be denied the opportunity to access life-saving therapies that have been or could be shown completely reliant on the use of fetal tissue for their discovery and development.’ 

In a brash move, they suggested that the same should be applied in the opposite direction, meaning those who oppose fetal tissue research ought not to reap its benefits. 

‘At the very least, we challenge them to be true to their beliefs: if they wish to short-circuit a scientific process that has led to medical advances, they should pledge to not accept for themselves the health benefits that such advances provide,’ they wrote.

‘Whether if by intent or by neglect, such real or potential endangerment of the health of many US citizens prompts us to call on the judicial, legislative, and executive branches of our government to decide the consequences to those in the chain of authority who have promulgated this funding ban.’

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