WASHINGTON — The National Institutes of Health freeze on fetal tissue procurement is threatening to hamper work at an agency lab conducting cancer research, the latest sign that a Trump administration decision could slow the efforts of some scientists who depend on the samples.
“If they don’t procure new fetal tissue by, say, end of January, [there] will be an impact,” an NIH spokeswoman said, adding that the agency was taking unspecified steps in an effort to make sure research did not have to be paused.
The spokeswoman, Renate Myles, declined to identify the lab for “security reasons,” but said that the group is working on cancer immunotherapy. Two other NIH labs, one in Montana and another at the National Eye Institute, are also conducting research using fetal tissue that could ultimately be affected by the suspension.
NIH is also working with its overseers at the Department of Health and Human Services to see how the researchers can get the tissue amid the agency-wide pause on new orders, Myles said.
“We’re working with HHS to see how we can procure the tissue,” she said.
The Trump administration is in the midst of a wide-ranging audit into research involving human fetal tissue. As part of that review, the NIH asked staff scientists to “pause” purchases of fetal tissue beginning in September, as Science first reported.
Anti-abortion activists have decried researchers’ use of fetal tissue, which comes from aborted fetuses, alleging that it fuels an industry that makes money off of the fetuses. In some states, it is illegal to buy and sell fetal tissue, and federal law prohibits companies from profiting from the sale of fetal tissue. Meanwhile, the administration has expressed interest developing alternative research methods that don’t depend on fetal tissue. NIH announced this week it intends to spend up to $20 million to support research into such alternatives.
HHS spokesperson Caitlin Oakley told STAT that “by no means was [the audit] meant to halt or ban or cease research, and if procuring new fetal tissues is crucial to that work, then we will work with people to make sure that research continues.”
She added in a written statement that earlier this year, “NIH leaders asked to be notified by … investigators if new procurement would be necessary.”
The pause only applied to scientists employed by NIH, not to outside scientists receiving NIH grants.
The NIH recently reviewed all of the agency research groups using human fetal tissue and identified the National Cancer Institute lab as one that might be affected if it isn’t able to get new tissue by the end of next month. Another lab, whose research has been interrupted, is run by Kim Hasenkrug, an HIV scientist in Montana. Myles told STAT that the National Eye Institute group, which Science reported was affected by the pause, is using frozen fetal tissue and should be able to continue work through the end of February.
“We are actively considering next steps so that we can ensure [there is] not a pause in [the cancer] research,” Myles said. She added that the NIH is also working “to bring the Hasenkrug [lab] back on track.”
Myles said HHS is “aware” of the challenges facing the Hasenkrug lab and the cancer lab, but declined to name which HHS officials NIH has been working with to resolve the issues.
Human fetal tissue has a range of uses in research. Hasenkrug’s lab was using it to build mice with human-like immune systems to study HIV. That disease only attacks the human immune system, so it is not possible to study the disease in other animals unless those animals have a human-like immune system. It is possible to use other kinds of human cells that do not come from fetuses to create mice like these, but those mice don’t live as long, or can quickly lose their human characteristics, which limits the research scientists can do with them.