Update (December 6): HHS has issued a statement declaring that the information from the anonymous sources in the Post’s article is inaccurate. “No decision has been made on the extension of a University of California San Francisco contract with the NIH regarding research involving fetal tissue,” the statement reads. “No contracting official would have had the authority to impart any communication to UCSF that the contract was being cancelled because no decision has been made.”
The National Institutes Health last week in a phone call told the principal investigator of a University of California, San Francisco, HIV research lab that it would not renew the facility’s contract for next year, The Washington Post reports, citing a virologist familiar with the matter. The investigator is therefore preparing to close the lab.
The newspaper is keeping the identity of the lab anonymous because of threats it has received. Researchers there test drugs to treat or prevent HIV using humanized mice that are immunodeficient themselves and have been implanted with tissue from the thymus glands of aborted fetuses. In the resulting mice, the fetal tissue develops into the equivalents of human thymus glands, where T cells, which are targeted by HIV, develop. The laboratory’s work “is absolutely essential,” Stanford University School of Medicine stem cell researcher Irving Weissman tells the Post. “There is no substitute today.”
This is the second contract involving fetal tissue that the federal government has recently canceled. In September, the Food and Drug Administration ended its contract with the California nonprofit Advanced Bioscience Resources, also for drug testing in mice implanted with fetal tissue. Further, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) stated that month that it was reviewing all fetal tissue research “in light of the serious regulatory, moral, and ethical considerations involved,” the Post notes.
These decreases in government payment for research involving fetal tissue come at a time when anti-abortion advocates are pressuring President Donald Trump’s administration to stop federal funding of research that uses fetal material.
The University of California, San Francisco, contract began in 2013, provided the lab about $2 million per year, and was slated to last seven years. In October, according to the virologist, the AIDS division at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) told the lab the contract would be extended for another year.
Then last week, the agency reversed course, informing the principal investigator in a phone call that the contract would be discontinued, the virologist and an unnamed university spokesman tell the Post. The virologist added that the NIH employee “made it clear it was not an internal NIH decision,” but that the decision was “coming from the highest levels.”
On Monday, the university business office received a letter saying that the lab’s funding would only go through March 5—an extension of 90 days—according to a source familiar with the letter. The contract funds the equivalent of salaries for six full-time employees. The principal investigator, who needs to give employees 6o-days notice before termination to comply with university policy, is preparing to close the lab, the person familiar with the letter tells the Post.
Casting some uncertainty on all this, the NIH’s principal deputy director Lawrence Tabak tells the Post that “there was never any intention to indicate we intend to terminate the contract” and says he has no knowledge of last week’s phone call to the lab head. Tabak and HHS spokeswoman Caitlin Oakley tell the Post that the contract’s future will be uncertain until the review of fetal-tissue research is complete.
Clarification (December 6): This story has been updated to clarify that HHS disputes having canceled a UCSF contract. The Scientist regrets any confusion arising from the previous version.