The Biden administration is lifting Trump-era restrictions on human fetal tissue research that is vital for studying an array of diseases and discovering possible treatments.
On April 16, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced new rules that will remove some hurdles for scientists looking to carry out research using human fetal tissue, which would otherwise be discarded after abortions.
The NIH is overturning a decision by the Trump administration in June 2019 that required all federally funded fetal tissue research to receive approval from an Ethics Advisory Board. The board quickly became filled with anti-abortion ethicists and rejected all but one of 14 funding applications. The reversal of the decision will also allow NIH research involving fetal tissue to resume. The Washington Post reported over the weekend that the NIH was lifting a Trump-era ban on using federal money to buy human fetal tissue for biomedical research by government employees.
Fetal cells are used to create cell lines, cell cultures that can be grown indefinitely in the lab used a stable medium for experiments, sometimes referred to as “immortal cells”. One of the key features that makes them useful for biomedical research is that they are uniquely adaptable and capable of easily differentiating into multiple cell types.
The use of human fetal tissue is a highly charged topic because it's obtained through pregnancies that have been terminated (with informed consent from the donor). Despite facing opposition from some religious and political groups, a vast stream of scientific achievements and breakthroughs owe their success to fetal tissue research, namely the development of vaccines. For instance, one of the first medical applications of fetal tissues was their use in the production of the first polio vaccines, developed by Swedish scientists at the Karolinska Institute in the 1950s.
A well-known cell line obtained from fetal cells in the 1970s is known as HEK 293, which has been used for decades in cancer research, vaccine development, protein production, protein interaction studies, and drug testing. The cell line was even used in the development of some of the COVID-19 vaccines. A study in 2017 estimated that another widely used cell line, WI-38, played a fundamental role in the development of vaccines that have saved up to 10 million lives globally.
Given its invaluable importance, the tightened regulations on fetal tissue research brought a huge amount of difficulty for biomedical researchers and scientists. In January 2021, the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) sent a letter signed by 98 top organizations urging President-elect Biden to “swiftly rescind” the human fetal tissue research restrictions once he took office. Now, it looks like their wish has come true.
“The scientific community appreciates that the Biden Administration is lifting the arbitrary restrictions on promising biomedical research using human fetal tissue,” Christine Mummery, president of the ISSCR, said in a statement.
“The NIH and other research agencies should be insulated from political interference. Research grants should be based on the scientific and ethical merit of each proposal. The ISSCR welcomes the return to evidence-based policymaking.”