Why Researchers Say Fetal Tissue Is Essential for Medical Research

Republican leaders want to ban fetal tissue, but researchers say that would harm efforts to find treatments for HIV and other diseases.

Over the years, fetal tissue has been vital in finding cures for diseases, including polio. Getty Images

New efforts by some Republicans in Washington have brought the use of fetal tissue in medical research back under scrutiny.

But those efforts to restrict its use have also highlighted how critical fetal tissue has become to medical advances.

Researchers hope it’s the latter point that sticks with the public.

For now, though, some research has slowed as National Institutes of Health (NIH) researchers have been prevented from obtaining new fetal tissue.

In addition, Republican leaders in the House of Representatives recently conducted a hearingon whether alternatives are available to replace fetal tissue, although researchers say the tissue can’t be fully replaced yet.

The actions have renewed long-standing opposition by anti-abortion groups to repurposing fetal tissue, collected from the remains of fetuses terminated in elective abortions.

But scientists say fetal tissue is key to trying to cure and prevent diseases. They’ve made their frustration clear since the NIH restrictions were quietly revealed in September.

How fetal tissue helps

The HIV and AIDS research organization amfAR said such efforts threaten “the potential to cure HIV and save millions of lives worldwide.”

In the House hearing, Dr. Sally Temple, a former president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, told the committee fetal tissue has been essential in studying treatments for cancer, HIV, tuberculosis, and the Zika virus.

It’s also helped lead to the development of vaccines for polio and other diseases.

“There are a lot of really good examples where fetal tissue has revealed stuff stem cells wouldn’t have,” said Lawrence Goldstein, PhD, a University of California at San Diego cellular and molecular medicine professor who’s used fetal tissues to study Alzheimer’s disease.

He’s also an expert on stem cells, one of the alternatives that’s been studied as a replacement for fetal tissue in research.

He cites Zika as one of the clearest examples. The mosquito-borne disease affects fetuses directly, most notably by causing smaller brains. But how exactly it works in the developing brain is critical to developing a potential vaccine or treatment.

“An important question is to know which cells in the brain are preferentially infected by Zika virus,” Goldstein told Healthline. “Because if we don’t know what it’s affecting, it’s hard to fight it.”

He says there have been some efforts to use stem cells to produce the types of cells found in a developing brain in order to trace how the Zika virus attacks.

But there are some cells found in brains that the stem cells can’t produce, he says. Without them, the research will always be incomplete.

“You need the full range of fetal brain cells in order to see,” Goldstein said. “I have a colleague who has said, ‘If you want to study a fetal disease, you’ve got to use fetal tissue.’”

Goldstein also notes the role cells in fetal tissue play in helping identify cells.

That’s been critical in efforts to use stem cells to make kidneys in a lab, as it’s crucial to be able to say for sure whether the cells being produced are kidney cells, Goldstein says.

“But there are molecular signatures that each cell has,” he said. “And cells in fetal tissue are the gold standard for knowing those signatures.”
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The potential impacts

The impacts of the new restrictions on research are still emerging. 

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which oversees the NIH, began an audit of its procurement on fetal tissue in September.

This came after it terminated a contract with Advanced Bioscience Resources, which distributed aborted tissues, after not being “sufficiently assured that the contract included the appropriate protections applicable to fetal tissue research or met all other procurement requirements.”

During the audit, NIH officials put a “pause in place” for obtaining new fetal tissue, the NIH said in a statement to Healthline.

That applies only to NIH investigators, who can’t get new tissue. However, they can continue to use tissue they already have.

Researchers who only collaborate with the NIH weren’t expected to be affected.

Anne Nicholas, spokeswoman for the International Society for Stem Cell Research, notes that HHS officials have said no changes to federal funding policies — such as a ban on funds for fetal tissue procurement — would be made until the audit is done.

“However,” she told Healthline, “the issue is whether scientists can procure fetal tissue that is needed while the review is in place.”

Some interruptions in research have already been reported. 

Researchers who have been using fetal tissue to create mice with humanlike immune systems to test treatments for HIV and AIDS were preparing to test an antibody, but they reportedlydidn’t have enough mice for the tests after the pause was put in place.

In its statement, the NIH said agency officials weren’t informed of the need for new tissue in this research, and that “NIH leaders asked to be notified by intramural investigators if new procurement would be necessary” so they can “determine appropriate next steps to prevent interruption of research.”

“The intent was never to cause research to stop,” the NIH statement said.

Past efforts to ban fetal tissue

This is far from the first time the use of fetal tissue in research has come under scrutiny.

Vice President Mike Pence signed into law a ban of the acquisition of tissue from aborted fetuses in Indiana when he was governor of the state. That law was later blocked in court.

In Texas, a law was passed in 2017 requiring that all fetal remains be buried or cremated. A court struck down that law in September.

Critics contend that using fetal tissue for science violates the rights and dignity of an unborn child.

The anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List has called such research “grisly experiments” and refers to the tissues used as “baby body parts.”

The audit of NIH fetal tissue procurement was a “completely inadequate” response, the group said.

Anti-abortion groups also fear that “trafficking” fetal tissue could incentivize doctors to recommend abortions.

They contend alternative materials can be used for research.

What might be next

Goldstein thinks opponents are off the mark on both points.

He says discussions of donating tissue are only brought up after a decision is made to end a pregnancy.

The American Medical Association has laid out ethical guidelines for physicians, including obtaining the woman’s consent to donate the remains after the decision to abort has been made.

As for alternatives, Goldstein says it’s at least possible that one day there could be something to replace fetal tissue.

“But we don’t know how long it’s going to take,” he said. “And it’s going to take fetal tissue itself to find out if the alternatives work.” 

Democrats are taking over the House this week, so congressional efforts to restrict access to fetal tissue might wane.

But it’s still possible further restrictions could come down from HHS or the White House.

“This is an unpredictable administration,” Goldstein said.

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