After receiving a total of $4.5 million in fetal tissue research grants from the National Institutes of Health in 2014, Yale School of Medicine researchers’ work on the tissue could be threatened by recent initiatives in Congress.
After the release of several controversial anti-abortion videos over the summer, fetal tissue research has come under attack from Republicans in Congress, with a bill created last month to outlaw conducting research on all fetal tissue obtained as any product other than stillborns. The videos, which surfaced this past July, alleged that Planned Parenthood was selling research materials from aborted fetuses for profit. The accusations sparked a bill to prohibit research conducted on tissue acquired from aborted fetuses, as well as the establishment of a 13-person committee to investigate the practice of fetal tissue research. According to Maurice Mahoney, co-chair of Yale’s Embryonic Stem Cell Research Oversight Committee and other Yale researchers interviewed, the bill has the potential to hinder research being conducted at the Yale School of Medicine if passed.
“We’ve had ups and downs of the political efforts to influence medical research in this realm,” Mahoney said. “When the restrictions [on fetal tissue research] are very tight, it has inhibited some development of what investigators [at Yale] have wanted to do.”
In 2014, the Yale School of Medicine was awarded over $4.5 million to fund fetal tissue research projects, including investigations concerning brain development, HIV immunity and hepatitis B, according to NIH grants. In total, Yale received funding from the NIH for six separate projects incorporating fetal tissue in 2014.
Of the five lead researchers who received the six NIH funding grants to conduct fetal tissue research, three declined to comment on the issue of future funding and two could not be reached for comment.
“For research purposes, people have to study tissues all the time and [fetal tissue] is a huge potential scientific asset,” said Yale School of Medicine psychiatry professor Eugene Redmond.
In his investigation of cures for Parkinson’s disease at Yale in the mid 1980s, Redmond was one of the first scientists to utilize fetal tissue for research. Redmond was also heavily involved in the efforts to legalize fetal tissue research. Though he no longer conducts fetal tissue research, Redmond said fetal tissue continues to play an important role in medical research today.
According to Redmond, the recent controversy regarding fetal tissue research was both upsetting and baseless. He pointed specifically to the video that sparked the current argument over the issue, stating that the clips included were highly edited, and the claims made against Planned Parenthood were untrue. Redmond added that even if the accusations had been true, Planned Parenthood still would not have been violating any laws.
“Even in the edited material, I don’t think there was anything that I heard inconsistent with the laws that stand for the use of fetal tissue,” Redmond said.
Debate surrounding the anti-abortion video has led to the proposal of the “Safe RESEARCH Act” in the House of Representatives, which states that “human fetal tissue may be used in research … only if the tissue is obtained pursuant to a stillbirth.”
By imposing this limitation, the proposed bill would not halt fetal tissue research entirely, but would prohibit any research conducted on tissue obtained by means of aborted fetuses.
The bill also raises the question of whether fetal tissue research is actually necessary among all the alternative methods of conducting similar research that exist today, and do not require the usage of fetal tissue, Mahoney said.
An alternative to fetal tissue research, Mahoney pointed out, is research with induced pluripotent stem cells, which can differentiate into virtually any type of tissue desired by scientists for purposes of research.
“Do we need [fetal tissue] in the same sense that it was useful a few decades ago, or even 10 years ago? We have methods that let us use less and less [fetal tissue] — sort of a parallel to the methods that have let us use fewer animals in research than we have in the past,” Mahoney said.
As of Oct. 13, Planned Parenthood no longer accepts reimbursement for fetal tissue it provides to medical researchers.