Banning Fetal Tissue Research Isn’t Bad for Science. It’s an Opportunity.

Indiana lawmakers banned the use of aborted fetal tissue in research in 2016. But soon after, the law was blocked by a federal court after Indiana University sued, claiming the law was unconstitutionally vague and unduly burdensome.

But in a surprising turn of events, last month, the 7th U.S. Circuit
Court of Appeals overturned the lower court’s decision in a 2-1 vote, lifting
the injunction and bringing the Indiana law one step closer to taking effect.

To date, at least 14 other states have passed similar laws that place
restrictions on the transfer, sale, receipt, and/or use of aborted fetal tissue
for experimentation. Indiana’s ban was signed into law by then-Gov. Mike Pence.

The 7th Circuit’s move is a positive step, and the Trump administration should emulate
it by shelving all aborted fetal-tissue use at the federal level. 

The ruling came
just months after a congressional hearing that explored alternatives to fetal-tissue
research. At that hearing, we testified about how important research and
medical advances can move forward using alternatives that don’t rely on aborted
fetuses. 

Endless
propaganda and scare tactics suggest that life-saving research will suddenly stop
if aborted fetal-tissue research is not allowed.

That’s not
true. Restrictions will allow better and more advanced—and noncontroversial—alternatives
to be deployed and discovered. 

So, how can important
research be done with alternatives? We outline four recommendations.

Recommendation 1: Increase targeted National Institutes
of Health funding to $100 million to validate existing alternative models and accelerate development of new models that
don’t rely on the use of human fetal tissue obtained from elective abortions. 

The National Institutes of Health announced last year that it would invest up to $20 million over the next two years to
develop alternatives to fetal-tissue research, but that isn’t ambitious enough
if the goal is moving away from aborted fetal tissue in research in a timely manner. 

Therefore, we strongly urge greater investment by the Department
of Health and Human Services, with highest priority being given to alternatives
in research.

That would involve increasing National Institutes of Health funds for
development of alternatives to $100 million, the same amount currently used to
fund fetal-tissue research, and making these funds rapidly available to
researchers through a fast-track grant-review process.

Increased funding would, in part, aim
to improve “humanized” mouse models (mice with a human immune system) for HIV
research.

The “BLT” mouse—generated with aborted
fetal bone marrow, liver, and thymus tissues—is commonly used in HIV research. But
other successful, innovative models are available that use human peripheral
blood lymphocytes, hematopoietic stem cells from umbilical cord blood and
neonatal thymus tissue. 

Despite these advances, recent reports
highlight that there is still a need for development of even better, novel humanized
mouse models, because of current limitations with all models, including those
generated using aborted fetal tissue. 

With the field rapidly evolving, now
is the time to increase funding for the best and most ethical scientific methods.

Recommendation 2: Perform an in-depth cost analysis of research using aborted fetal tissue
versus the alternatives. 

It’s more efficient and cost-effective
to obtain ethical alternatives compared with aborted fetal tissue. That’s
because tissues normally discarded can be donated from living individuals
undergoing routine surgical and biopsy procedures, as well as labor and
delivery. 

We propose that an in-depth analysis be done of the costs to obtain alternative tissues compared to aborted fetal tissue. This information is important for creating awareness in the medical community of existing alternatives, cost savings, and mechanisms for procuring such tissue.

In just one
example, alternative tissue in the form of donated neonatal thymus from
surgical procedures is 50 times more efficient and 1,000 times more cost-effective
than obtaining aborted fetal tissue for generating humanized mice.

That means
that a researcher using aborted fetal tissue would need to spend an additional
$40,000 to make the same number of humanized mice as would be generated with
alternative tissue.

Recommendation 3: Invest in tissue banks that make alternative sources of fresh tissue
readily available to researchers. 

Tissue banks are important for
procuring alternative tissues and making them available to all researchers in a
cost-effective and efficient manner. 

Core facilities can also be beneficial
for providing high-quality, custom-made alternative tissue-derived products, such
as adult stem cells, induced pluripotent stem cells, and organoids for studying
various types of human disease. Those include brain-development and neurodevelopmental
disorders, human immune response, stroke, Parkinson’s, and spinal-cord injury.  

Similar
tissue banks are currently available in the U.S. and work directly with
internal medical staffs to make alternative tissues available to researchers.

Tissue banks save researchers time and money. However, not every academic
institution is fortunate enough to have this type of tissue bank, leaving researchers
to develop their own protocols for acquiring such tissue. That’s time consuming
and may not even be possible, given the type of medical procedures performed at
their institution and the specific tissue needed. 

Recommendation 4: Set a sunset date for all aborted fetal-tissue use. 

In states without restrictions, there’s little or no incentive for researchers to stop
using aborted fetal tissue, because it’s accessible, is deeply entrenched in
the culture, and continues to receive federal funding to subsidize tissue
sourcing. 

When President George W. Bush
introduced a ban on federal funding for research on newly created embryonic
stem-cell lines, numerous advances in stem-cell research occurred, including
the discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells, which revolutionized research
and medical advancement. 

Establishing a sunset date for federal
funding of aborted fetal-tissue procurement and research use would likewise provide
a substantive incentive for development of modern scientific models. 

For all of these reasons, the Indiana
law should be seen as an opportunity, not a burden, for researchers to discover
scientifically better alternatives with genuine hope of treating disease and
disability.