Despite receiving a letter in support of fetal tissue research signed by seventy organizations this past December, the Trump administration has announced a change in policy regarding this life-saving research.
If diseases like HIV, Zika, and diabetes could thank the administration themselves, they likely would. That’s because fetal tissue has been instrumental in the development of therapies for those ailments many more.
This new policy prevents National Institutes of Health Employees from conducting research with human fetal tissue despite its having been sourced from elective abortions with informed consent. Although they may use any remaining tissue on hand, medical research into rheumatoid arthritis and Parkinson’s disease, amongst others, will soon be set back.
For researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, this change in policy came to a screeching halt. Funding is being eliminated immediately for their research into new HIV therapies.
Other institutions receiving federal funding may continue using fetal tissue until grants expire. Renewal for these projects will then have to undergo a newly created ethics review to continue government sponsorship. There is no indication of what those ethical guidelines might be. With the history of the administration in mind, many life-saving experiments will likely be unable to proceed.
Though many scientists recognize this as harmful to medical progress and innovation, abortion opponents are enthusiastic about the change.
When weighing the controversy, most reasonable people want to know if there are effective alternatives. The answer to that question remains in debate.
While opponents suggest the use of monkey or hamster cells, it is easy to understand why human cells would be the most valuable cell type for studying diseases in humans. They have also suggested the use of artificially grown cells called organoids, but these do not accurately mimic human cells and are, therefore, ineffective tools. Opponents also recommend the use of tissue from miscarriages for research. Scientists though, specifically avoid this type of tissue as it more commonly contains abnormalities which likely caused the miscarriage.
Although the answer to alternatives is somewhat divided, the people actually conducting the research seem to agree that understanding human cells requires studying human cells.
Many are unsure of what rules there are governing the use of fetal tissue, and this is often a point of debate. There are strict federal rules on the use of these tissues and related research. Women who are undergoing abortions are required to be provided with informed consent about the intended use of the cells. For doctors providing abortions and collecting tissues for research, rules prohibit them from altering the timing or method used in the procedure to obtain the cells. Importantly, obtaining money for these tissues is also prohibited. This helps to avoid any ethical issue related to payment which would disproportionately affect the poor.
To continue critical medical research, access to fetal tissue is necessary. These fetal cells are valuable because they are less specialized and can easily be grown to suit the needs of many human studies. That, and they are the actual cells that the rest of us have not those of another animal or inferior lab-created approximations, making them most likely to provide accurate and valuable insight.