On Monday, the National Institutes of Health announced they intend to invest up to $20 million in the next two years to fund studies to develop alternatives to human fetal tissue, after the Trump administration threatened to pull funding from projects that rely on it for research — including the search for a cure for HIV/AIDS.
The use of fetal tissue and stem cells from discarded embryos created for in vitro fertilization, or from the products of abortion, has always been controversial, but is still an industry standard in biomedical research. But the Trump administration has sided with the pro-life crowd, putting such research in jeopardy. President Trump announced in September that they were going to conduct a “comprehensive review of all research involving fetal tissue,” under pressure from anti-abortion activists and conservative lawmakers who referred to the material as “body parts of children whose lives have been violently ended by abortion.”
There’s already a prohibition against the use of human fetal tissue by researchers directly employed by the NIH, but there’s a possibility that a review by the Trump administration could extend that ban to include organizations that rely on grants from the NIH. That could be disastrous for researchers across the country, including, notably, those at the University of California in San Francisco, who have been responsible for most of the major developments in the study and treatment of HIV and AIDS, and are working toward a cure. These researchers rely on incubating human T-cells in mice for their research, and they say there’s currently no viable alternative method to test the effectiveness of HIV drugs at the early stages of the disease. The program usually receives a new $2 million grant each year from the NIH, which represents all of their funding, but this year they got just a 90-day extension of their current contract instead — after initially being told that the funding was to be cut immediately.
“I don’t think any scientists here would use human fetal tissue if there was a good alternative,” Paul Volberding, head of the AIDS Research Institute at UCSF, tells Rolling Stone in an email. “In the case of this lab’s research, human tissue is needed as HIV doesn’t grow in other cells and the mouse model is used to test drugs that might be active against HIV.”
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“I understand the depth of feeling of those opposed to this use of human tissue,” Volberding adds, “but also have seen the devastation of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the commitment of our scientists to bring it under control. In my opinion, this work is carefully planned, ethical and vital.”
Researchers looking for treatments and cures for Parkinson’s Disease, Alzheimers, Diabetes, ALS, spinal cord injury, liver and kidney disease, and blood and immunological disorders, among other things, rely on human fetal tissue as well. So, the NIH is looking for an alternative.
“Human fetal tissue and embryonic stem cell-derived systems have been used for understanding and modeling human developmental and disease processes” the announcement of the intent to fund new studies said. “Research using these tissues has been important in shedding light on scientific questions fundamental to biomedical research, ranging from understanding basic physiologic mechanisms to understanding normal human tissue developmental and disease processes. However, new technologies raise the potential of reconstituting these model systems without fetal tissue yielding more replicable and reproducible system for broader uses.” In other words, they know that human fetal tissue is the gold standard in biomedical research, but they’re hoping that the scientific community will be able to find an alternative in case it becomes unavailable because of political concerns. The NIH was not immediately available for comment.
Of course, if a viable alternative was within reach, it would likely already in use considering the controversy around human fetal tissue, so the solution isn’t as simple as just looking elsewhere.
“I don’t see any immediate replacement,” Dr. Warner Greene, director and senior investigator at the Center for HIV Cure Research at the Gladstone Institutes, tells Rolling Stone. “The models have been perfected, and this has become a standard tool in modern biomedical research.”
“We do not have a great alternative,” he said. “I’d be happy to educated on that point, but I’m also a very experienced researcher and this isn’t, as you’d say, my first rodeo.”