WASHINGTON - The Trump administration on Wednesday ended medical research by government scientists using fetal tissue and also cancelled a multimillion-dollar contract for a university laboratory that uses the material to test new HIV therapies.
The decision to tighten federal funding for an ideologically polarizing aspect of medical research was made by President Donald Trump himself, according to a source familiar with the decision-making. It represents a victory for anti-abortion 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 vaccine production and treatment for illnesses such as Parkinson's disease.
Immediately affected is a University of California at San Francisco laboratory whose multi-year contract with the National Institutes of Healthto test potential HIV therapies using "humanized mice" was terminated for unspecified ethical reasons. The government has been the lab's sole source of funding.
The Health and Human Services Department announced the policy shift in a brief 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.
No other current funding of fetal tissue research by nongovernmental research laboratories will be interrupted, the statement said. Future applications for federal support will be subject to review by a new ethics advisory board.
"I think it's ultimately a terrible, nonsensical policy," said Larry Goldstein, distinguished professor in the University of California San Diego's department of cellular and molecular medicine, who has advised scientific groups that use fetal tissue.
NIH currently supports about 200 academic and other outside labs that conduct research using fetal tissue, according to a senior administration official who spoke about such details on 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.
Wednesday's announcement triggered an immediate outpouring of praise by leading anti-abortion forces. "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 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 in the administration itself, HHS last September,announced it was initiating what it said would be a comprehensive review of all fetal tissue research "in light of the serious regulatory, moral, and ethical considerations involved."
Wednesday's announcement turns on its head an assurance to scientists late last year at an invitation-only NIH workshop on fetal tissue research. Brett Giroir, HHS' assistant secretary for health, told scientists that at least under the old policy and for researchers employed by nongovernmental labs, there would be no interruption in funding as long as experiments comply with the ethics guidelines of their universities and the federal government, according to a participant.
The scientific community has been adament that no adequate alternatives to human fetal tissue exist. Opponents, however, say that newer methods, including the use of thymus tissue from newborn infants who undergo heart surgeries, appear promising. Late last year, the NIH announced a $20 million grant to support the development of alternative research models.
At theNIH workshop, Giroir, who oversaw much of the review, 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.
Last September, the department had also cancelled a contract with a California firm, Advanced Bioscience Resources, which was a main supplier of fetal tissue implanted into laboratory mice. The firm had been targeted by the same anti-abortion 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, as HHS calls it, remained underway, the administration already began to signal its reluctance to keep money flowing to two laboratories that use "humanized mice," implanted with fetal tissue, for research intopromising therapies to treat HIV.
In December, the National Institutes of Health informed a principal investigator at one of those labs - at UCSF - that it was withholding the next $2 million annual installment of a multi-year contract that is the lab's only source of funding. A few days later, NIH pivoted and 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.