A recent decision by the Trump administration to limit funding for research using fetal tissue is changing scientists’ research paths and disrupting research into diseases like AIDS, Down syndrome, and diabetes. Experienced researchers are warning early-career scientists to avoid research that involves fetal tissue, while graduate students can’t receive training grants for this type of research.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) revised its grant application guidance in July 2019 for researchers planning to use fetal tissue, but there is confusion about how researchers should comply with the policies. For example, the extra requirement that NIH funding applications must be assessed by a new ethics advisory board is not yet possible to meet because the board hasn’t been established.
This process adds an additional layer of review for grant applications that have already been rated by fellow scientists as high enough to be funded. Members of the ethical review board will report advice directly to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who is responsible for appointing the members. The board also will deliver its advice directly to Mr. Azar, suggesting that he has the final say on the application.
“This policy is as clear as mud as to how this is going to work,” said Scott Kitchen, PhD, director of the Humanized Mouse Core Laboratory at the University of California at Los Angeles. “I’ve asked my way all the way up the ladder [within NIH and the National Cancer Institute]. I don’t think the people I am talking to know.”
Scientists fear that the new restrictions will effectively end fetal tissue research. “No researcher in their right mind wants to write a grant with fetal tissue right now,” said a Boston-area scientist who works with mice transplanted with fetal tissue and spoke anonymously with The Washington Post.
Some investigators are looking for alternatives to fetal tissue in research projects, but there currently is no adequate substitute. Conservatives argue against using fetal tissue for research, claiming that using taxpayer money to fund research supported by elective abortions is unethical. Prior to the administration’s ruling, the use of fetal tissue in biomedical research had been permitted since the early 1990s. The NIH has funded much of this research, including work that has helped develop therapies for HIV, cancers, neurological problems, eye disorders, and sickle cell disease.