It sounded like a prank call.
The person on the other line told Dr. Eugene Gu, a medical resident at Vanderbilt University, that he was an investigator with the House Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives.
As a researcher who works with tissue from aborted fetuses, Gu is used to harassing and intimidating phone calls. So he hung up.
But it turns out the call last week was legitimate. A House panel, chaired by Republican Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, has issued 15 subpoenas to universities, companies, and abortion clinics, seeking documents about their use of fetal tissue and the names of individuals involved in such work. Twelve of those subpoenas went out this week — including one to Gu’s research group, Ganogen, which is based in Redwood City, Calif.
Ganogen is developing a procedure to take organs from aborted human fetuses and grow them in lab animals, with the ultimate goal of transplanting them into humans. He’s published research to show it’s possible. “These are organs that would normally be thrown in the trash can,” Gu said.
That research has landed him in the middle of a political firestorm.
Fetal tissue research has been going on for decades, and has led to the development of vaccines for disease such as polio, but it burst into public view in a big way last year when abortion opponents released a series of videos that purported to show Planned Parenthood officials discussing the sale of fetal body parts.
Planned Parenthood said the videos were misleadingly edited. And in January, a Texas grand jury cleared Planned Parenthood of wrongdoing and, instead, indicted two members of the group that made the videos.
But conservative politicians at both the state and federal level have seized on the issue.
“Constituents, regardless of being antiabortion or proabortion rights, are demanding we get answers to their questions about how we treat and protect life in this country and details of how this practice of selling baby body parts transpires,” Blackburn wrote in an opinion piece shortly after the House investigative panel was established.
State legislatures, meanwhile, have moved to crack down on research on fetal tissue. Florida recently passed a bill prohibiting offers to sell or donate tissue from aborted fetuses. And at least five states — Indiana, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, and South Dakota — prohibit fetal tissue research outright, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Scientists are worried.
Earlier this month, the American Association of Medical Colleges expressed “grave concern” over Congress’s actions, arguing that “vital medical research” depends on fetal tissue. The American Academy of Pediatrics also wrote to the panel to express concerns, pointing out that hundreds of thousands of lives have been saved through vaccines developed in part using human fetal cells.
The congressional inquiry “makes scientists like me and others worry that their work on fundamental questions of biology and disease could be subject to political scrutiny,” said Christopher Mason, a geneticist at Weill Cornell Medicine who signed an open letter to Congress in October urging them to stop politicizing research.
Mason said he has published research involving fetal tissue, and has tissue sitting in his freezers, but is not currently using it.
As for Gu, he said he was motivated to study fetal organs by a patient he met while he was still in medical school. The patient, a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, died of heart failure because he couldn’t get a transplant in time.
Gu was moved by the death — and by the plight of the more than 120,000 people in the United States who are waiting for an organ. He thought about the hundreds of thousands of abortions that occur annually and wondered: What if you could take organs from aborted fetuses, grow them, and give them to people in need?
“We consider abortions to be the same type of tragedy that a car accident or traffic fatality is,” Gu said. Just as an organ donor who dies in a car crash can help others with her body parts, so too can an aborted fetus, he reasoned.
In 2011, Gu cofounded Ganogen, which is incorporated in Delaware. Gu said that earlier this year, before he had heard of the congressional panel, he decided to put the company on hold and pursue the research as a nonprofit. He plans to register the Ganogen Research Institute as a 501(c)3 soon.
His team relies solely on private donations and does not receive any government money, Gu said.
Last year, Gu published a paper in the American Journal of Transplantation showing success at growing human fetal kidneys in rats. And last November, he submitted a paper to Science showing how a fetal heart could regenerate when transplanted into a rat. Gu showed STAT an email from Science rejecting the paper “on the grounds of novelty” — though he suspects it was because working with fetal tissue is so politically fraught.
Monica Bradford, executive editor of the Science family of journals, said that journal’s decision was not based on the nature of Gu’s research, and that the editors “did not see the advance to be as novel as the authors did.”
Gu said his next step is to move from growing the fetal organs in rats to growing them in pigs, which could allow them to reach the size needed to transplant them into adult humans.
“That will be the key to ending the organ donor shortage,” Gu said.
Gu was unaware of the subpoena from the House until contacted by a STAT reporter on Wednesday afternoon.
He then put Ganogen’s website back online. He had taken it down after “a flood of crazy people” contacted him in the wake of the Planned Parenthood videos, but decided to put it back up, he said, in part to show “that we’re not really intimidated by Blackburn.”
Gu has not yet received the subpoena, which he said was apparently sent to the address of a property that Ganogen hasn’t occupied since 2013. Gu is not yet sure how he will respond. But he knows he doesn’t like the idea of a government panel interfering with his research. “It feels like living in North Korea or something,” he said.
He also knows that he won’t stop his scientific work.
“We’re still here, we’re still continuing our research, and we’re not going away,” Gu said, “despite any intimidation by the Republicans.”
This story has been updated with comments from Science.