In 2016, 39,782 people were diagnosed with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in the US alone – and a further 15,807 people already identified as HIV positive died. So, you might assume that any research into finding a cure for this potentially fatal disease would be celebrated, or at the very least condoned.
Not so. The Trump administration has halted at least one government-led study, Science reported on Friday. Why? The issue comes down to the use of human fetal tissue.
Scientists at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) were told to stop obtaining new tissue for research in September. There was no public announcement at the time, but it coincided with a federal review of the use of fetal tissue in government-funded research.
Now, NIH spokespeople have told Science that staff scientists have been asked "to pause procurements of fetal tissue" until the review has been settled. This, apparently, does not apply to scientists working at universities who have received government grants, but only those who work directly for the Montana-based NIH.
This suspension is reported to affect at least two laboratories, both operated by the federal-run agency. One of these is reportedly involved in a study examining how HIV colonizes human tissue using mice implanted with human fetal tissue. This, they hope, will either confirm or disprove an emerging theory on why the human body succumbs to the virus so quickly, and possibly identify an antibody that could stop HIV from establishing reservoirs inside the body.
"We were all poised to go and then the bombshell was dropped," Warner Greene, director of the Gladstone Center for HIV Cure Research in San Francisco, California, told Science. He also runs a research lab, which was due to begin the HIV study with Kim Hasenkrug from the NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
"The decision completely knocked our collaboration off the rails. We were devastated."
Greene is referring to an email sent by Hasenkrug on September 28, which read: "[The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)] has directed me to discontinue procuring fetal tissue from ABR [Advanced Bioscience Resources], the only source for us. I think that they are the only provider of fetal tissue for scientists in the nation who don’t have direct access to aborted fetal tissue. This effectively stops all of our research to discover a cure for HIV."
The administration's decision appears to be part of a broader scale initiative to scrap the use of human fetal tissue obtained from elective abortions – a highly contentious issue for certain elements of the Republican party and Trump’s base. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) contract for collecting fetal tissue for drug testing was also canceled in September. While just last week, HHS extended the University of California contract for 90 days rather than the usual one year.
This poses a huge problem for scientists working in health. Mice implanted with humanized fetal tissue are a crucial commodity for testing and developing medicines for many diseases, not just HIV.
"This is scientific censorship of the worst kind," Greene said of the suspension, reports The Washington Post.
"You spend your life trying to do good experiments and organize your science carefully and suddenly, at the whim of some politicians in Washington, D.C., they remove a critical piece of your scientific armamentarium."
Even if the suspension is lifted, it could take a year to get back to the point where they are ready to start the experiment, Greene told Science.