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Restrictions on fetal tissue research

The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has announced that the Trump administration is halting fetal tissue research conducted by government scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) (Statement from the Department of Health and Human Services, 5 Jun 2019). Although university-led research projects funded by the US government that involve fetal tissues will not be affected and the research can continue until the funding expires, new restrictions have been put in place for new grant applications or renewal applications for academic researchers that seek funding from the NIH for projects that involve the use of fetal tissues from elective abortions, and an ethics advisory board will review the proposals and recommend whether to fund any future projects ( Nature , 5 Jun 2019; Science , 5 Jun 2019).

In 2018, the HHS initiated a review “of all HHS research involving human fetal tissue from elective abortions to ensure consistency with statutes and regulations governing such research, and to ensure the adequacy of procedures and oversight of this research in light of the serious regulatory, moral, and ethical considerations involved.” The government now announced that it will end funding of medical research by government scientists using fetal tissue and will not extend its contract with a research laboratory at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) ( The New York Times , 5 Jun 2019). In a response to the administration’s actions on fetal tissue research, UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood says that UCSF strongly opposes the decision and that the “action ends a 30-year partnership with the NIH to use specially designed models that could be developed only through the use of fetal tissue to find a cure for HIV” (UCSF, 5 Jun 2019).

The decision is a major blow to basic and translational research. Many projects from across a broad range of research areas, including neuroscience, stem cell research, developmental biology and microbiology, depend on fetal tissue. Fetal tissues have been vitally important for studies of complex diseases and conditions such as Alzheimer disease and cancer, human development, as well as studies on HIV and Zika virus and for drug and vaccine development ( Nature , 6 Jan 2016). The use of fetal tissues has always been controversial. In December 2018, the NIH announced it would award US$20 million in grants to support the development of alternative methods (NIH, 10 Dec 2019); however, currently available alternative systems (for example, organoids or animal models) are often not suitable for a particular condition or disease being studied or for investigating human development. Fetal tissues have been instrumental, for example, for the study of HIV pathogenesis and treatment using humanized mouse models ( Current Opinion in Virology , 2015) or transmission of Zika virus from mother to baby through the placenta or linking Zika virus infection to the development of microcephaly ( Nature , 1 Jan 2016), and scientists have a clear message emphasizing that currently no alternatives to human fetal tissue have been shown to be as powerful.

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Correspondence to Andrea Du Toit.

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Du Toit, A. Restrictions on fetal tissue research. Nat Rev Microbiol 17, 462 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41579-019-0228-z

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