Fetal tissue research is the victim of special interest politics

Fetal tissue research is the victim of special interest politics
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As a biomedical researcher I am deeply troubled that the Trump administration is yielding to special interest groups and launching an attack on important biomedical research. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announcement that it will review all fetal tissue research runs the risk of playing politics with an important resource that’s key to developing new therapies to treat human disease.

Fetal tissue has been essential in research used to develop therapies that have saved millions of lives and it continues to be necessary to understand how human tissues develop and are impacted by disease. An important fact is that the fetal tissue used in this research can only be used if it would otherwise be discarded.

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Many individuals prefer not to discard fetal tissues and instead to donate the tissue for research, realizing its value to scientists and wanting to contribute to advances that can lead to potential therapies and medical breakthroughs. Safeguards for the use of fetal tissue have been in place for decades and were supported by Republican and Democratic administrations and Congresses. These features have ensured that fetal tissue is obtained and used ethically.

Importantly, fetal cells and fetal tissue have unique properties that make them very valuable for research in tissue generation and regeneration. Specifically, fetal cells and tissue contain the earliest cells that eventually form an intact tissue and so these cells serve as the gold standard for comparison when scientists attempt to generate intact organs from stem cells.

In fact, fetal tissue research historically has led to major advances in treatment for conditions that arise during pregnancy and that threaten survival of fetuses. As researchers work on developing potential treatments for disease, this tissue provides a true window into human physiology that is not available through other means. It helps us understand the biology of development and disease and ensures that safe and effective therapies will be developed.

So what is at stake? If this important research is stalled by a lengthy review process and even stopped based on political pressure from special interest groups, Americans will have to wait for treatments and cures. 

In the best case, scientists in other countries will continue to develop cures and advance biomedicine, without the U.S. science community. In addition, important scientific efforts now underway will be delayed:

  • Key research on neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, spinal cord injury, stroke, retinal disease and age-related macular degeneration
  • Development and testing of vaccines for potential treatment of influenza, dengue fever, HIV/AIDS and hepatitis B and C
  • Screening of drugs and development of treatments for infectious diseases
  • Development of disease treatments for the human immune system, reliant on fetal tissue implants in animal models
  • Clinical trials now in development in several areas that have the potential to improve the lives of millions of Americans

It’s essential to resist special interest politics and allow this crucial research to continue. The existing regulatory and legal framework in the U.S. for overseeing fetal tissue research was carefully developed with input from the public, ethicists, policymakers and scientists. 

While the use of organoids or mini-organ systems developed with stem cells are useful for understanding disease development and screening drugs, fetal tissue remains essential as a comparative tool to ensure that new cellular and tissue models accurately simulate human physiology. Just a few weeks ago, 64 scientific, medical and patient organizations wrote to leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives opposing a proposal to restrict federal funding for fetal tissue, correctly stating that fetal tissue is an irreplaceable tool for biomedical research.

We cannot slow or delay biomedical progress because of special interest pressure on science and medicine. This research is too important. What is at stake? The development of new therapies that have the potential to ease human suffering around the world and save millions of lives.

Lawrence Goldstein, PhD is a professor at UC San Diego School of Medicine. Goldstein is a distinguished professor of cellular and molecular medicine and scientific director of the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine and director of the Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center at UC San Diego.