Trump Administration Cracks Down On Fetal Cell Research

11:52 minutes

The Trump administration is cracking down on federal scientists seeking fetal tissue for their work, while it conducts a “comprehensive review” of research involving fetal cells. One HIV research program that uses fetal tissue to create humanized mice has already been halted by the order. The Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement that it’s performing the audit due to the “serious regulatory, moral, and ethical considerations involved” in this type of research. And a spokesperson for the HHS said the agency is “pro-life, pro-science.” But what does that mean, exactly? Meredith Wadman, a reporter for Science Magazine and author of The Vaccine Race, joins Ira to explain.

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Segment Guests

Meredith Wadman

Meredith Wadman is author of The Vaccine Race (Viking, 2017), and a reporter for Science Magazine in Washington, D.C..

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, we’ll be talking about schadenfreude– when you get satisfaction out of witnessing the misfortune of someone else. What kind of schadenfreude are you guilty of indulging in? We’d like to know. Give us a call– our number, 844-724-8255, 844-724-8255, or you can tweet us, @scifri. 

But first, the Trump administration is cutting back on funding for scientists involved in fetal tissue research while the administration conducts a quote “comprehensive review” of research involving fetal cells. One HIV research program has already been halted by the order. Why? The Department of Health and Human Services directed us to a statement, which says the department is doing the audit due to the quote “serious regulatory, moral, and ethical considerations involved” in this type of research. 

And a spokesperson for the HHS has said the department is quote “pro-life, pro-science” but what does that mean exactly? And what might the implications be for fetal tissue research going forward? Meredith Wadman has been covering the story for Science Magazine. She’s also written a book about fetal cell research and vaccines called The Vaccine Race. She joins us now from Washington. Welcome to Science Friday. 

MEREDITH WADMAN: Thanks, Ira. It’s a pleasure to be with you. 

IRA FLATOW: Nice to have you with us. I know you’ve been reporting on this for months. Please take us back to the beginning. How did all of this start? 

MEREDITH WADMAN: It began really with letters to the FDA commissioner and to Alex Azar, the secretary of Health and Human Services, from abortion opponents, including members of Congress, back in September saying, hey, we don’t like the idea that FDA just executed a contract with a small company in California to obtain fetal tissue from elective abortions donated by the mothers because that just isn’t OK for the US to be involved in that in a funding way. And FDA had been obtaining the tissue in order to create mice with human-like immune systems that would allow them to test drugs for safety and effectiveness. So almost immediately, Health and Human Services canceled that FDA contract, which was a small one, about $16,000. But it also announced that it was going to review the entire portfolio of US-funded research that involves fetal tissue donated after elective abortions. And it has been doing that under the aegis of the assistant secretary of health for about four months now. 

IRA FLATOW: So what does it mean by an audit? Is that just a term of ambiguity? 

MEREDITH WADMAN: I think it means we’re scrutinizing this. And what they’re saying is we want to make sure it comports with existing laws and regulations that are very specific about in what circumstances and how and under what ethical regulations this research may be funded by the US government, and those have been written in law since 1993. The department did not, in September, produce any evidence that this particular company in California, whose contract with the FDA got killed, was not abiding by those guidelines, and it has not done so since. Nor has it produced any evidence that researchers funded at the National Institutes of Health, which does the lion’s share of funding of this research, are not abiding by the guidelines. So it’s not really clear what, except political pressure, induced the administration to take on this review. 

IRA FLATOW: The administration has brought scientists forward, and congressmen have hearings on Capitol Hill. Republican congressmen have said that fetal stem cell research is not important. Fetal cells are not important for doing meaningful work. There are other tools they may use. How logical or how real is that argument? 

MEREDITH WADMAN: Well, I think, in fairness, they didn’t say it’s not important. They said it’s not necessary. They said there are alternatives. Scientists, as a whole, strongly debate that and contest that. 

There are some kinds of research that can be done without human fetal cells, and researchers, goodness knows, would prefer not to use them were there better alternatives. But the fact is for many applications, really important ones like discovering drugs against HIV, there are no better alternatives at the moment that’s [INAUDIBLE] for the scientific community. 

IRA FLATOW: Your book, The Vaccine Race, is actually about how fetal cells were used to make vaccines too? 

MEREDITH WADMAN: That’s correct– and, in fact, many vaccines. But in this country, most importantly, they’re still used to make the rubella vaccine that protects about 4 million toddlers every year against rubella, which people may not remember. But back in the day, rubella, also known as German measles, regularly caused tons and tons of damaged babies to be born because rubella, like Zika, attacks fetuses in the womb. 

I shouldn’t draw a distinction, though. The fetal cells used to make vaccines were obtained from two legal abortions way back in the 1960s. And they were propagated, so they still exist and can be used and are used. However, the dispute currently is over the obtaining of fresh fetal tissue from new abortions in the present day. So that’s an important distinction. 

IRA FLATOW: And an important point about this is that this is tissue that’s going to be thrown out otherwise, correct? 

MEREDITH WADMAN: Correct, abortions lead to fetal tissue that is typically disposed of. I should add though, that in the framework, the legal framework, that allows the US to fund this research, a woman’s decision to proceed with an abortion must be divorced from her decision then to donate that tissue for research so that there’s not a situation in which she’s undecided about the abortion. But, oh, well, I can donate the tissue for research. Therefore, that makes me take the plunge. No researcher or any institution or any facility providing the services of providing an abortion may not even so much as mention donation of the tissue until her decision is independently taken. 

IRA FLATOW: How strongly have scientists involved in research who know great details about the importance of fetal cell research– how strongly have they been speaking out, pushing back? 

MEREDITH WADMAN: They’ve been speaking up pretty strongly. Sally Temple, who represented the International Society for Stem Cell Research at the congressional hearing on December 13th, was really adamant to the members of Congress who challenged the notion that this tissue could just be not used in alternatives already existed. She pointed out that really important drugs like Truvada for HIV and really important discoveries like how the genetics go wrong in this horrible childhood eye cancer, called retinoblastoma, have depended on access to human fetal tissue. 

IRA FLATOW: Even Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health, he has spoken out strongly in favor. 

MEREDITH WADMAN: He did speak out strongly in favor. And now, unfortunately, abortion opponents are calling for him to be fired. It’s a real irony because, as many people know, Francis Collins is an evangelical Christian who thinks about these things very strongly and clearly and is what he would call pro-life himself. So calling for his head may be asking for the head of someone who really is the most sympathetic among many biomedical scientists to people who oppose abortion. 

And we can respect both sides in this debate. I think what’s really sad about calling for axing this research is doing so would not prevent any abortions. It would just mean that tissue already being thrown away could no longer be put to use to try to make the lives better of people who are living. 

IRA FLATOW: Are there any alternatives for the states? For example, California was funding its own fetal cell research for some time to get around these issues. Is that still going on? Is there funding available from the states? 

MEREDITH WADMAN: Yeah, that was for human embryonic stem cell research– the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. That is going to be sunsetting so trying to fund this privately would really be, I think, difficult. There’s literally dozens and dozens of projects listed in a publicly accessible database that the National Institutes of Health funds, and it’s everything from trying to understand what goes wrong in the brain in down syndrome to probing how Zika virus crosses the placenta and damages the brains of children in utero. So there’s tons of research going on that halting would have a really serious impact on. 

IRA FLATOW: So let’s talk about what’s the next move on this, who we should be watching– the president, someone at HHS? 

MEREDITH WADMAN: I think Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary for Health, initially a pediatric critical care doctor who knows his staff and who’s also been involved in research administration and big university systems and so on. He’s in charge of this review, and he is the one– and I suppose his boss, Alex Azar– who will be making the final call on if and to what degree the government does end up shutting down any of this research. Every time he’s been pressed about what are you going to do, it’s been like the jury is still out or still conducting this review. No decisions have been made. 

IRA FLATOW: So is he the one who said he’s both pro-life and pro-science? 

MEREDITH WADMAN: Yes, that is the catch phrase that the department is using. 

IRA FLATOW: Is that can I have my cake and eat it too? 

MEREDITH WADMAN: Yeah, or I have to toe both sides of a very thin political line, and it’s obviously tough. 

IRA FLATOW: Can the public weigh in on this some? 

MEREDITH WADMAN: Well, letters to calm members of Congress, letters to the HHS assistant secretary, I think public statements, petitions– and the anti-abortion lobby is making itself very loudly felt in this respect. They wrote a letter to President Trump yesterday saying you’ve got to shut down this research. So voices on all sides are being heard to a degree. 

IRA FLATOW: Will the new Congress with the Democrats control of the House have any influence on this? 

MEREDITH WADMAN: I don’t know because Congress is about law, really. And just because you can fund something, as say NIH, doesn’t mean you must. It’s not really a question of law so long as the 1993 law that makes this kind of research legal still stands. Now I suppose Congress– a very conservative Congress– could rewrite that law. But clearly, with the House going to the Democrats in January, that’s not going to happen. 

IRA FLATOW: Well, we’ll watch it with you. I want to thank you for being a referee on this, Meredith. 

MEREDITH WADMAN: It’s been a pleasure. Thanks for having me, Ira. 

IRA FLATOW: Have a happy holiday. 


IRA FLATOW: Meredith Wadman is a reporter for Science Magazine and author of The Vaccine Race.

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