During a congressional hearing on “exploring alternatives to fetal tissue research” on Thursday, Dr. Sally Temple tried to set lawmakers straight: there are no comparable alternatives. But Republican lawmakers, who espoused “pro-life” beliefs throughout the hearing, ignored her.
“I offer my perspective as a representative of nearly 4,000 research colleagues around the world,” said Temple, who spoke on behalf of the International Society for Stem Cell Research and, separately, has earned a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” for her research findings.
“Fetal tissue is an essential resource for studying and developing therapies for cancer, HIV, Zika, Tuberculosis, and other devastating diseases. Fetal tissues have unique properties. The alternatives mentioned may be useful at times but cannot fully replace fetal tissue.”
Temple testified at the hearing because House Republicans are trying to get the Trump administration to stop federal funding for research that uses donated tissue from aborted fetuses. In fact, anti-abortion groups recently met with White House officials to demand as much. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is already looking into alternatives, and paused the further procurement of fetal tissue for some researchers — halting at least one government-run study aiming to find a cure for HIV — as part of an ongoing audit. The freeze is also threatening the work of a cancer research lab, according to STAT.
While doctors are usually the ones caught in the crossfire, it’s scientists this time who are asking lawmakers not to let anti-abortion views dictate their work. But so far, scientists have had no luck convincing Republicans.
Just minutes after Temple’s testimony — in which she explained why researchers couldn’t use alternatives like organoids to better understand how, for example, Zika behaves in the body — Rep. Jody Hice (R-GA) punted the conversation to how abortion providers like Planned Parenthood are selling “body parts.” (That’s untrue.) Hice went on to thank two experts who also testified for declaring “aborted fetal tissue is not necessary” — a notion Temple called “dangerous.”
The two experts, Drs. Tara Sander Lee and David Prentice, are affiliated with the same anti-abortion research organization, the Charlotte Lozier Institute. While not untoward, it is unusual and telling for one hearing to have two expert witnesses affiliated with the same research tank, said the communications director for Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), ranking member of the committee overseeing the hearing.
“After over 100 years of research, no therapies have been discovered or developed that require aborted fetal tissue,” Lee told lawmakers. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) fixated on this statement, declaring, perhaps jokingly, that it’s unnecessary to investigate further and that the body should just end the $100 million in federal funding.
"After over 100 years of research, NO therapies have been discovered or developed that require aborted fetal tissue.
History has shown us that we never needed fetal tissue."
– Stem cell researcher, Dr. Tara Sander Lee
— Susan B. Anthony List (@SBAList) December 13, 2018
“History is that fetal tissue was vital to vaccine development,” said Lawrence Goldstein, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, where he heads the university’s stem cell program and depends on human fetal tissue for his research on Alzheimer’s disease. Medications like Enbrel for rheumatoid arthritis, Pulmozyme for cystic fibrosis, and Nuwiq for hemophilia used fetal tissue studies as well.
If not donated to science, fetal tissue would be thrown in the trash, Goldstein told ThinkProgress by phone. What’s more is that to even find viable alternatives, researchers would have to compare them to fetal tissue to see if they work better, worse, or the same.
“Of course, funding research into potential alternatives to any sort of research, including fetal tissue research, is potentially valuable because you might discover something new and important,” said Goldstein. “That said, currently and for the foreseeable future, fetal tissue research remains vital to research on a whole variety of diseases.”
The National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins told Bloomberg Law that “fetal tissue will continue to be the mainstay until we have other opportunities,” as existing research demonstrates its benefits.
Before 2015 sting videos claimed Planned Parenthood is selling “body parts of aborted babies,” fetal tissue research used to have bipartisan support. It’s heavily regulated by the federal government and, thus, has been funded by the Clinton, Bush 43, and the Obama administrations.
But now, scientists and medical groups are forced to defend it against the anti-abortion movement. Indeed, various organizations (including the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, HIV Medicine Association, and the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research) wrote a letter to lawmakers expressing their support of fetal tissue research ahead of Thursday’s hearing.
Dr. Matthew E. Brown, the lead author on a 2018 Stem Cell Reports paper, also wrote to House members, clarifying misinterpretations of his study. His paper looked at using neonatal thymus tissue (NeoThy) in “humanized mouse models” — a study Charlotte Lozier Institute researchers often cited as proof that ethical alternatives exist if scientists want to study human diseases.
“It is premature to make generalizable conclusions about the NeoThy replacing fetal tissue (BLT type) models in all humanized mouse research applications… To ban or further restrict fetal tissue research would be deeply irresponsible and, in my opinion, detrimental to patient health,” he wrote.
“In the meantime, I am hopeful that this hearing in the U.S. Congress will be a constructive dialogue with the U.S. scientific community regarding the need for researchers to access tissue, including fetal tissue, necessary to advance the cutting edge research we are undertaking with the goal of alleviating patient suffering worldwide.”