WASHINGTON — The Trump administration on Wednesday ended medical research by government scientists using fetal tissue and also cancelled a multimillion-dollar contract for a nongovernment lab that uses the material to test new HIV treatments.

“Promoting the dignity of human life from conception to natural death is one of the very top priorities of President Trump’s administration,” the HHS announcement said, in a nod to Christian conservatives who have been a main part of the president’s political base.

The Department of Health and Human Services terminated the years-long contract to a laboratory at the University of California at San Francisco, saying they were “not sufficiently assured that contract included the appropriate protections applicable to fetal tissue research or met all other procurement requirements.”

For grants and contracts in nongovernmental research laboratories, no other funding of fetal tissue research will be interrupted. Officials said, however, that future applications for federal support will go before a new ethics advisory board.

Last September, the Department of Health and Human Services 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.”

The use of fetal tissue in biomedical research has long been opposed by social conservatives as a byproduct of abortion.

Francis Collins

Director Francis Collins of the National Institutes of Health, said as recently as last December that he believes “there’s strong evidence that scientific benefits come from fetal tissue research.” Yet the Trump administration is ending the medical research by government scientists using human fetal tissue. J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

At stake is critical federal funding for research into diseases that range from HIV to cancer to Zika, vaccine production and treatment for illnesses such as Parkinson’s disease. Though abortion opponents decry the use of “human baby parts” in biomedical science, researchers say fetal tissue’s use has not led to an increase in the prevalence of abortion and has spurred scientific advances that could not have been made otherwise.

Wednesday’s announcement turns on its head an assurance late last year at an invitation-only workshop at NIH on the debate over federal support for fetal tissue research by Brett Giroir, HHS’ assistant secretary for health. Giroir told scientists that, at least for grants and contracts for researchers employed by academic and other nongovernmental labs, there would be no interruption in funding, as long as experiments comply with the ethical guidelines of their universities and the federal government, according to a participant.

As part of the the administration’s fetal tissue review, officials at the White House, HHS, and the NIH have focused on the contentious question of whether there are effective alternatives to fetal tissue in such research.

The scientific community has been adamant that no adequate alternatives exist. Opponents, however, say that newer methods, including the use of thymus tissue from newborn infants who undergo heart surgeries, appear promising.

Last September, the department 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 into promising 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.

At the invitation-only workshop at NIH late last year, Giroir, who oversaw much of the audit, 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.

 

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