The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS, announced in a Wednesday press release that it will not extend its contract with UCSF that funded research involving human fetal tissue from elective abortions.
According to the press release, HHS had previously extended the UCSF contract multiple times and launched a review of HHS research projects using human fetal tissue from elective abortions in September 2018. The last extension ended Wednesday.
Both the UC Office of the President, or UCOP, and UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood issued statements Wednesday opposing the HHS decision, with the UCOP describing it as a “step backward for science.”
“UCSF exercised appropriate oversight and complied with all state and federal laws,” Hawgood said in his statement. “We believe this decision to be politically motivated, shortsighted, and not based on sound science.”
The Donald Trump administration has also placed additional restrictions on all scientists applying for funding from the National Institutes of Health to conduct research involving fetal tissue, according to the press release. Scientists will now have to clear a new ethics advisory board that will review proposals and recommend whether or not to fund them, adding another layer to a process that the NIH website describes as already being “highly regulated.”
Fetal tissue has been employed to research a variety of conditions, with the UCOP statement listing Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, HIV and rheumatoid arthritis as some examples.
“The Trump administration dealt a blow today to scientific discovery and medical advancement,” the UCOP statement said.
One useful aspect of fetal tissue for scientists is that it contains fetal stem cells. Scientists also use embryonic stem cells, which can become any type of cell, but fetal stem cells have different applications, said UC Berkeley molecular and cell biology lecturer Robin Ball. Fetal stem cells are more developed and therefore “already kind of know what they’re going to become,” Ball said.
According to the NIH website, human fetal immune tissues are often implanted into mice to create “humanized” mice, which act as models for the human immune system. Scientists have used humanized mice to make major scientific advances in understanding infectious diseases and in the development of therapeutics. According to the website, although scientists are looking for alternatives to the humanized immune system mouse models created with fetal tissue, participants at a December 2018 NIH workshop still described the fetal tissue model as the “gold standard” for animal models.
“The main thing is that this is really just an abortion topic,” Ball said. “It really doesn’t have to do with the science, I think; it’s just all politics involving whether abortion should be legal or not.”