NIH to fund research into fetal tissue alternatives

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is looking for alternatives to fetal tissue in research projects after facing pressure from anti-abortion groups. 

NIH announced Monday a new program that would spend up to $20 million over two years to find and develop alternatives to using fetal tissue in research projects. 

It said it will solicit applications soon to "develop" or "further refine" human tissue models that can model human biology, like the immune system, without relying on the "use of human fetal tissue obtained from elective abortions." 

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"Human fetal tissue and embryonic stem cell-derived systems have been used for understanding and modeling human developmental and disease processes," the NIH said in a statement. 

While research using fetal tissue has shed light on scientific questions fundamental to biomedical research, the NIH said, "new technologies raise the potential of reconstituting these model systems without fetal tissue." 

Alternatives could be easier to replicate for broader uses, the NIH said. 

The NIH cited donated tissue from deceased babies as an alternative, as well as mice with "humanized" immune systems.

The funding seeks to "accelerate research" into fetal tissue alternatives. 

The announcement from NIH comes amid a pressure campaign led by anti-abortion groups. 

Groups like the Susan B. Anthony List and March for Life are demanding that the Trump administration end funding for research projects that use fetal tissue, mostly at the NIH, arguing that there are more ethical alternatives.

Tom McClusky, March for Life's vice president of government affairs, said the NIH's announcement is a "great and a brave step forward." 

But many biologists argue fetal tissue is critical to improving biomedical research. 

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is still conducting a review of more than $100 million in federal funding of these projects, and is expected to reach a decision in the coming months.

HHS has held listening sessions with those on both sides of the issue, including scientists who use fetal tissues in their research. 

HHS has reportedly told one senior NIH scientist to stop procuring fetal tissue from a firm that is the only available source, according to The Washington Post.

“This effectively stops all of our research to discover a cure for HIV,” the researcher wrote in an email he sent to a collaborator in September, according to the Post.