Trump administration plan to defund fetal tissue research impacts UCSF

The Trump Administration announced it will defund medical research that uses fetal tissue from elective abortions.

The decision directly impacts a multi-million dollar HIV research program at UCSF which had a contract with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services through June 5th. UCSF officials were informed that there will be no extensions to the contract.

"Promoting the dignity of human life from conception to natural death is one of the very top priorities of President Trump's Administration," the HHS statement stated Wednesday, "The administration's decision to let the contract with UCSF expire and to discontinue ...research conducted within the National Institutes of Health (NIH)  involving the use of human fetal tissue from elective abortion."

"When a directive such as this eliminates a whole program of research, it will reverberate throughout the country," said Randy Schekman, a winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and a UC Berkeley Professor of Molecular and Cell Biology.

Professor Schekman says cell lines from fetal tissue have been critical for research and the development of vaccines for polio, rabies, chicken pox, shingles, rubella and Hepatitis A.

Researchers have also used fetal tissue in studying diseases such as HIV/AIDS, Alzheimer's, spinal cord injuries and eye diseases.

"That really requires more research and requires tissues such as this to do that research," said Schekman, "There are many elected abortions that are still legal in this country and that tissue would otherwise be discarded." 

The directive is the latest battle in the national debate over abortion and fetal tissue that has become increasingly contentious. 

"The efforts by the administration to impede this work will undermine scientific discovery and the ability to find effective treatments for serious and life-threatening disease," said UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood in a statement Wednesday, "UCSF exercised appropriate oversight and complied with all state and federal laws. We believe this decision to be politically motivated, shortsighted and not based on sound science."

Stanford law professor Hank Greely, who is director of the Stanford Center for Law and Biosciences, says the Trump Administration's action changes course from a law Congress passed 26 years ago setting guidelines for research on fetal tissue. 

"The rules that have been in place since 1993 have been very careful to try and make sure that the possibility of research use of fetal tissue, never induced any woman to choose to have an abortion," said Greely.

Greely pointed to the HHS statement that says the administration will create an ethics board to review any future funding requests by non-NIH researchers who plan to use fetal tissue. Greely notes the statement does not give any criteria for how those funding decisions will be made.

"During the remainder of the Trump Administration I would not put high odds on any outsider getting NIH funding for research with fetal tissue," said Greely.