The Department of Health and Human Services is investigating the use of fetal tissue in medical research across the US, the agency said this week.
Already, HHS has cancelled a contract between the Food and Drug Administration and the company that has been supplying it with a small amount of human tissue its own drug testing.
Fetal tissue has long been a divisive and highly-politicized issue in the US.
The biomedical industry has relied on the malleable cells for groundbreaking research, but the use of fetal tissue has raised questions of morality and ethics throughout its history.
Some, too, have argued that stem cells provide a less controversial replacement for fetal tissue.
Daily Mail Online spoke to an expert who broke down the differences between and respective values of stem cells and fetal tissue, and why they both still play important but controversial roles in medicine.
Stem cells (pictured) can be gathered from adult human bone marrow, but they are not a substitute for fetal tissue that the Trump administration is investigating the use of, experts say
In accordance with the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) standards, fetal tissue is obtained from human embryos that died in the womb, were still born or aborted.
Embryonic and stem cells are fundamentally different from other human tissues in that they are in a state of flux.
After the embryonic stage, the human body is composed of four different types of tissue cells: connective tissues, muscle, nervous tissue and epithelial tissues that line the organs and much of the body cavity.
But embryonic cells have not yet been differentiated – though they are more distinguished than stem cells – into these distinct component tissues.
This means that scientists can manipulate these cells into any kind of tissue.
Then, they can study human medical problems without inflicting them upon humans: the development of all manner of diseases, how a vaccine affects human tissue and more.
Some day, cell samples taken from live newborns that scientists ‘rewind,’ so to speak – back to their undifferentiated states – and stem cells taken from adult blood or bone marrow may be able to take the place of fetal tissue in research.
But we’re not there yet, according to Dr Emmanuelle Passegué, director of Columbia University’s Stem Cell Initiative.
Fetal tissues are still malleable, but not quite as undefined as stem cells, which are what scientists call ‘very pluripotent,’ and therefore harder to predict and control.
Scientists can also ‘induce a pluripotent state’ in cell samples from newborn babies, or slightly differentiate stem cells to get them to a comparable stage, so they can study diseases that affect babies, embryos and adults, Dr Passegué says.
‘It works but it still has a lot of problems, and we cannot understand the problem with this approach and refine it if we don’t compare it to real fetal tissue.’
Fetal tissue comes from fetuses that do not survive to childbirth.
Some of these samples come from stillbirths and miscarriages, which present less of an ethical quandary in a nation split over abortion.
But there are only an estimated 26,000 stillbirths a year in the US.
Between 15 and 20 percent of pregnancies end in miscarriages, but many occur before a woman knows she is pregnant, and often outside of hospitals in unsanitary environments, making tissue collection unlikely.
On the other hand, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than 650,000 legal abortions are performed each year in the US.
Before scientists gain access to this tissue, the woman undergoing the abortion must give her consent that the aborted fetus be donated.
‘It’s not frequent, and that’s a big limitation,’ says Dr Passegué.
These arrangements, including those that several universities have with Planned Parenthood are not money-making endeavors, Dr Passegué insists.
‘But the attack made by the anti abortion group is cannot sell piece of human fetus is in very political context,’ she says.
Universities like Columbia often collect these samples through partnerships with their affiliated or partner hospitals, ‘but you get a really limited number of samples,’ she adds.
‘You need strong proof when you do medical research, so you need to strong proof and enough samples to do that. To really conduct the medical research you need to do, you turn to companies to establish this collection,’ says Dr Passegué.
In fact, the US government itself, vis-à-vis the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did just this.
The FDA had a contract with Advanced bioscience Resources in California, which provided fetal tissue for the agency’s research.
About $15,000 a year went to the company for samples used to create ‘humanized mouse models’ for studying vaccine and medication reactions.
‘When you look at the numbers, it’s really not an enormous contract,’ Dr Passegué says, particularly for samples that are ‘expensive to collect.’
‘And it’s a very important part of the whole biomedical enterprise.
‘Human experimentation is the last stage in the development of a drug. To develop a treatment, you need to be able to … make mice more human, and you can only do that by creating a more human-like mouse.’
Such research is not just key to studying diseases of age that affect adults or the safety of vaccines for us all – studying fetal tissue is key to reducing the number stillbirths and miscarriages and number of babies born with birth defects.
‘We are study the actual disease tissue, too. Our understanding of microcephaly, for example, has only been possible because of fetal tissue,’ says Dr Passegué.
‘By this day and age it should be obvious why fetal tissue is absolute essential: we have to be able to understand the beginning of life and how to treat it.’
Dr Passegué notes that parents watching their children in the neonatal intensive care unit are ‘not the ones arguing we shouldn’t do this … if we don’t know the disease we don’t know the treatment,’ she says.
‘I hope that that will balance this kind of dark-age of science that is happening where the anti-abortion and pro-life movement have more of a say in the direction of science than previously.
‘We are using tissue coming from voluntary of abortion to get to this stage, and it’s for the good of humanity; it’s not to destroy babies.’