Since the Supreme Court decision on Dobbs vs. Jackson, which overturned the landmark Roe vs. Wade ruling in June, allowing states to prohibit early-term abortions, some scientists have expressed worries that new restrictions will decrease the availability of fetal tissues and embryonic stem cells. Scientists say that they’re concerned that some states will even pass laws banning embryonic tissue research altogether. Although biomedical researchers aren’t sure what the future holds, many say that losing access to these valuable research tools would erect barriers to making potentially life-saving discoveries.
Scientists use fetal tissue to test drugs, develop vaccines, and study and treat degenerative diseases. State-level abortion bans, some of which went into effect immediately after Roe was overturned, will likely affect the availability of fetal tissue. Multiple states, including Louisiana, Kentucky, and Nebraska, had already outlawed the use of fetal tissues in research prior to the Supreme Court’s recent decision on Roe. Most states follow federal guidelines, and previous presidential administrations have made efforts to restrict fetal tissue research on the federal level. Most recently, the Trump administration placed restrictions on fetal tissue research in June of 2019, prohibiting NIH scientists from conducting fetal tissue research and requiring scientists applying for NIH funding for this type of research to go through an additional ethics review board. The Biden administration has since lifted that ban and the additional review.
Embryonic stem cell (ESC) research is distinct from fetal tissue research, but could similarly be affected if states enact personhood laws, which state that life begins at conception. ESC research does not use tissue from legally aborted fetuses, but from fertilized embryos, which can be sourced through a stem cell bank or through fertilized eggs that would otherwise be discarded during the IVF process. Some states already ban human ESC research. In 1974, Congress put a federal moratorium on federally funded research with human embryos made through IVF. The George H.W. Bush administration vetoed legislation to lift this ban in 1992, and the George W. Bush administration partially reversed the prohibition in 2001, allowing federal research dollars to be directed toward work with then-extant human ESC lines but not for newly created human ESCs. The Obama administration lifted that restriction in 2009, enabling federal support for work with newer ESC lines.
Many proposed state abortion bans have not yet gone into effect, and for those that have, the implications for research are not yet clear. The Scientist spoke to several researchers who use fetal tissue, ESCs, or related materials about whether overturning Roe has yet affected their work, and what impediments they anticipate should further restrictions be adopted.
University of Wisconsin-Madison neuroscientist Anita Bhattacharyya studies how brain development is influenced by Down’s syndrome and other neurodevelopmental disorders, for which there are few good animal models. As part of her work, she investigates how mutations associated with Down’s syndrome alter early embryonic development. While she mainly uses human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) in culture, she works with fetal and adult tissue to validate the results of her work with stem cells.
Fetal tissue research is currently legal in Wisconsin, but it’s not clear yet whether abortion remains legal. Wisconsin passed a law in 1849 banning abortion, which the Republican legislature argues is now in place. Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul has filed a lawsuit challenging the ban.
Anita Bhattacharyya: I would say at a practical level, nothing has changed in this short time. Many of us . . . [are] not sure what is going to happen, both at the state level and the federal level, and how that affects our research. . . . Ultimately, not just in Wisconsin, but in many other states, people are going to think about whether they can do their work in that state, and move to states where they have more academic and scientific freedom.
[On the possible effects if more restrictive regulations are put in place:] For other people, I think shifting research focus might be more common. Another thing that people will do is they’ll collaborate with someone who can do it, who lives somewhere where they can. I would find a way to collaborate with someone or find someone who could continue the work, because I think it’s really important.
For this specific kind of science, while we’ve been using other models, [such as] cell lines and adult stem cells . . . they require validation. We can’t just say, ‘We see this difference, it must be what happens during development.’ We need a way to test. That’s what science is, you don’t just say something or show something, you have to validate it. But a bigger challenge is this politicization of science and limiting of scientific freedom. And that’s really kind of demoralizing sometimes.
Debomoy Lahiri, a researcher in Indiana who studies Alzheimer’s disease, made significant strides in identifying the role of microRNAs (miRNAs) in the disease’s progression. He and his colleagues are looking for the precise DNA sequence targets of miRNAs, and gene variants (SNPs) within the genes that code for miRNAs. These target sequences are different in humans and animals, says Lahiri, necessitating the use of human tissue. Lahiri was a plaintiff in a 2016 lawsuit challenging an Indiana state law that limited fetal tissue research. The law was ultimately upheld.
Debomoy Lahiri: Right now I cannot do fetal tissue research at all. I was featured in Science after the lawsuit and everything. At the personal level I got threats that I should not do all of these experiments. . . . [I was told] ‘You should leave the state and go to New York or Washington or California.’ But I’m not going to leave. . . . We stick to the tissues that we have already, and so we can work on our own resources. So this new bill will not affect my research per se.
[On the wider implications if use of ESCs and fetal tissues is further restricted:] It will essentially impose an overall reduction [in people] in the field, which will likely have an indirect effect on our work here. In the field, there is a push to use iPSCs . . . [as an alternative to ESCs and fetal tissue, and] that has its own advantages and limitations as well. We still need good human controls. If we want to study what happens to molecular signatures, and their aberrations, over 50-70 years of human life, we need to understand what happened in year zero. Nothing resembles the human brain more than the human brain.
Timothy Kamp, a stem cell biologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, got his start studying human ESCs in the late 1990s by collaborating with Jamie Thompson, who discovered the cells. He has since worked to make heart cells out of pluripotent stem cells, including human ESCs, in order to use them as a model for arrhythmias. These heart cells, he says, provide a powerful model for the effect of disease at different stages of development.
Timothy Kamp: [On whether the overturning of Roe will affect his work:] I have absolutely no idea. Nor does anyone. . . .. It’s just hard for me to know what to expect.
It hasn’t changed anything for me or for my group. But I can’t say for everyone at the university.
Fetal tissue research and human embryonic stem cell research . . . are different. We would have some concern if human embryonic stem cell research was outlawed by new state laws . . . That would have a dampening effect for many of the stem cell researchers. . . . Obviously, we’ve done a lot with iPS cells, and that work has really advanced. . . . But the human embryonic stem cell lines [are] still used by many, many labs around the world and [are] our gold standard, and to just have to throw all those out . . . would be detrimental to the field.
There are always alternatives for research, but the question becomes: Are those alternatives as informative, as powerful, or as useful? The answer in many cases is often no.
The Scientist also spoke with a researcher in North Carolina who studies placenta development and who chose to remain anonymous. Fetal tissue research is legal in North Carolina.
Anon: We do work with human embryonic stem cells, which are a part of the stem cell registry. . . . The human embryonic stem cells, these are cells that were approved even under the [George W.] Bush administration. So in that case nothing really has changed. . . . There’s a little bit of lock-in that exists with using existing cell lines that have been derived a long time back.
Could there be restrictions on [embryonic stem cell research]? I’m sure. There’s a pretty rich history [of such restrictions].
My lab is interested in developing [models for] early human placental development. . . . Historically, the one alternative to animal models has been working with first-trimester tissue from elective abortions. The other option is to work with early human embryos.
[As of 2019] NIH now requires separate justification for why you need to use fetal tissue in particular research. I personally find it fairly onerous. And so that coupled with fact that . . . we were not really getting a sufficient number of placental samples from elective abortions, it didn’t make sense for us to continue that line of work. So we basically developed alternatives for it. We use stem cells and animal models.
Everybody that you encounter has been born and is a product of a pregnancy. So a lot of the work that we do is extremely important to be able to understand the events that take place during very early prenatal development. If you expand out to other applications of embryonic stem cells . . . the ability to have drugs that are tested on human tissues is a pretty significant thing, which you will likely lose out on if there was no embryonic stem cell research, not to mention the applications in regenerative medicine.