Trump Administration Ends Fetal Tissue Research, Cancels Major HIV Grant

HHS Assistant Secretary for Health Brett Giroir
Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images

The Trump Administration announced Wednesday an end to the use of fetal tissue in medical research conducted within the U.S. government's vast health research agency.

The proclamation came as part of an announcement that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was canceling a grant to the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) that used fetal tissue to study new HIV treatments. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said in its statement that "promoting the dignity of human life from conception to natural death is one of the very top priorities of President Trump's administration."

The ban is being hailed as a major victory by anti-abortion activists, but goes against the recommendations of numerous scientists who have asserted that without this kind of research, we would not have made key advances in treating HIV, cancer, Zika virus, and Parkinson's disease, among other illnesses. Gregg Gonsalves, Ph.D., an assistant professor with the Yale School of Public Health, a member of ACT-UP NY and Treatment Action Group cofounder, told TheBody in an email: "The decision is 100% political, meant to placate anti-abortion extremists -- important allies of the president -- and has no basis in science."

HHS began its campaign against fetal tissue research in September 2018 when it announced that it had terminated the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)'s contract with Advanced Bioscience Resources, Inc. The company provides laboratories with fetal tissue collected from elective abortions that is then implanted into mice. At the time, the Washington Post reported that HHS said it would undertake a comprehensive review of all fetal tissue research, "in light of the serious regulatory, moral, and ethical considerations involved."

In December 2018, while the review was presumably still underway, HHS sent a letter to researchers at UCSF notifying them that their grant, which was regularly renewed for a year at a time, was only being renewed for 90 days and could be canceled after that, according to the New York Times. The $2 million grant supported research into HIV drugs and vaccines using mice who have been "humanized" using fetal tissue. These mice are vital to the research because HIV can only grow in human cells.

"Humanized mouse models of disease often use fetal tissue -- for example, liver and thymus -- to create human immune systems within these small mammals," Gonsalves explained. "These models are important in AIDS research, in that they allow for the study of new interventions against HIV [that] could not be conducted in humans." Gonsalves added that these models are used to understand other diseases as well: "The ban on fetal tissue research by the Trump administration is thus a blow not only to AIDS research, but to efforts to understand and cure diseases as diverse as lupus, arthritis, influenza, diabetes, and cancer."

Scientist across the country agree. When the House was considering a ban on fetal tissue research last year, a coalition of more than 50 research facilities, medical organizations, and academic institutions -- including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University, and Weill Cornell Medicine -- sent a letter to then- House Speaker Paul Ryan. In it they note that fetal tissue research was essential in developing vaccines against polio, measles, rubella, and chicken pox; finding treatments for diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and cystic fibrosis; advancing understanding of Zika as it rapidly spread; and developing Truvada as a way to prevent the further spread of HIV.

The coalition argued that there are no viable replacements for human fetal tissue, and that there is already rigorous ethical and legal oversight of its use. The letter concluded: "We urge you to oppose restrictions to this research and to support the families who are relying on biomedical research to develop new treatments for diseases that affect millions of people around the world."

Anti-abortion groups, however, have also been vocal about this issue, and were particularly focused on the now-canceled, $16,000 contract with Advanced Bioscience Resources (ABR).  In September 2018, a group of these organizations wrote to HHS Secretary Alex Azar in protest of FDA's contract with ABR, saying: "It is completely unacceptable to discover that the FDA is using federal tax dollars and fomenting demand for human body parts taken from babies who are aborted." A letter from 85 Republican members of Congress to then-FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb echoed this sentiment: "Unborn children are not commodities to be bought and sold. The practice of conducting research using the body parts of children whose lives have been violently ended by abortion is abhorrent."

Despite this opposition, the scientific community did not expect Wednesday's announcement effectively ending the use of fetal tissue in government research. Late last year, at an invitation-only NIH workshop on the subject, HHS Assistant Secretary for Health Brett Giroir told scientists that there would be no interruption in funding for researchers employed by nongovernmental labs as long as experiments comply with the ethics guidelines, according to the Washington Post. Around the same time, NIH Director Francis Collins remarked that "there's strong evidence that scientific benefits come from fetal tissue research," and this type of research would persist in being "the mainstay" for the foreseeable future.

According to a top administration official who spoke anonymously to the Washington Post, the decision directly impacts three research projects currently being conducted in-house at the NIH. These researchers will be able to continue their projects only until their supply of fetal tissue runs out. The employee also said that the NIH funds about 200 outside universities and labs using fetal tissue. HHS's statement refers to these as extramural research projects and says they would not be affected during their currently approved funding cycle. When these research projects are up for competitive review, however, an ethics advisory committee will be convened to determine whether funding should be renewed.

The UCSF HIV research grant was up for competitive review in December when HHS decided to grant it only a 90-day continuance, the New York Times reported at the time. A second 90-day continuance expired on Wednesday and the grant will not be renewed. NIH was the only source of funding for this grant.