NIH Announces Details of Human Fetal Tissue Research Restrictions
NIH Announces Details of Human Fetal Tissue Research Restrictions

NIH Announces Details of Human Fetal Tissue Research Restrictions

The latest restrictions require scientists to submit more comprehensive grant applications, and those applications will go through more stringent ethics reviews.

Jul 29, 2019
Ashley Yeager

ABOVE: Human embryonic stem cells
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Last Friday (July 26), the National Institutes of Health announced new restrictions on human fetal tissue research for scientists applying for grants using the material from elective abortions. Starting in September, scientists writing grants for experiments that involve this type of fetal tissue will be required to explain why other tissue types can’t be used and where the researchers plan to get the tissue. Early-career scientists with training awards will not be allowed to use fetal tissue from elective abortions. 

“This does a pretty good job of doing what the pro-life people want. It makes grant applications a lot more onerous, substantially and procedurally, while allowing [the Trump administration] to say: ‘We’re not completely banning it,’” Hank Greely, a bioethicist at Stanford University, tells Science.

The new NIH requirements are the latest restrictions President Donald Trump’s administration has placed on fetal tissue research. In June, the administration barred researchers at federal agencies from performing studies that used fetal tissue from elective abortions.

See “NIH Scientists Banned from Studying Human Fetal Tissue

Now, the latest restrictions establish a series of obstacles—including more detailed grant applications and lengthy ethics reviews—that scientists outside of federal agencies will have to navigate to perform fetal tissue research with cells taken from elective abortions. Researchers will also have to explain the use of “any human extra-embryonic cells and tissue, such as umbilical cord tissue, cord blood, placenta, amniotic fluid, and chorionic villi,” along with “derivative products from elective abortion tissues or cells, such as protein or nucleic acid extracts,” if the materials come from elective abortions, according to the NIH announcement.

The rules don’t make fetal tissue research impossible, “but it’s going to be very problematic,” Lawrence Goldstein, a stem cell neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, tells Science.

“In addition to the detrimental impact this will have on medical research, these new restrictions highlight the unfortunate trend of politicizing medicine and research. We have seen the same trend with climate change and vaccines,” Carolyn Coyne, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, tells Inside Higher Ed. “My concerns relate to more general concerns I have regarding our government and elected officials—do they really want to protect human health or do they want to be re-elected?”

Ashley Yeager is an associate editor at The Scientist. Email her at ayeager@the-scientist.com.