WASHINGTON — The National Institutes of Health wants to fund up to $20 million worth of research into alternatives to using human fetal tissue to study disease, the agency announced Monday.

The announcement is largely preliminary. The formal funding opportunity announcements will be published at some date in the future, the agency said, and scientists cannot yet submit proposals to be funded. The total amount of money available has not been determined, according to the announcement, but the agency is “interested” in investing $20 million over the course of two years.

The notice comes in the wake of news reports that in September the Trump administration ordered NIH scientists, including one team researching a treatment for HIV, to stop buying new human fetal tissue. Scientists on that team were using the fetal tissue to create mice with a human-like immune system so they could study the disease.

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For months, the Trump administration has been scrutinizing the use of human fetal tissue, which comes from abortions, in federally funded research. Already this fall, the Department of Health and Human Services launched an audit to determine how human fetal tissue was used in government research, the Food and Drug Administration canceled a contract with a fetal tissue provider, and NIH researchers were told to put a hold on new orders. In November, HHS said it would hold a series of meetings on the issue.

So far, the policy changes only apply to scientists on a government payroll. NIH spokesperson Amanda Fine told STAT Monday that there are no changes to the rules about fetal tissue research for scientists who have received NIH grants but are not employed by the government.

When describing the new funding, the NIH noted the value that research using human fetal tissue has brought to science and health, and said that alternatives would be more reliable.

“Research using these tissues has been important in shedding light on scientific questions fundamental to biomedical research, ranging from understanding basic physiologic mechanisms to understanding normal human tissue developmental and disease processes,” the announcement read. “However, new technologies raise the potential of reconstituting these model systems without fetal tissue yielding more replicable and reproducible system for broader uses.”

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