The Biden administration’s loosening of restrictions on the use of fetal tissue in research will allow UW-Madison scientists to continue such studies, which opponents have tried several times to ban in Wisconsin.
After the Trump administration suspended federal funding for most fetal tissue research in 2019, it set up a new advisory board that rejected all but one of 14 proposals in August, which included one from UW-Madison. The Biden administration has lifted the funding ban, with the National Institutes of Health saying last week it will not use the advisory board and instead oversee the studies within the agency as it had before.
“It allows us to move forward with the research in a timely way,” said Anita Bhattacharyya, an assistant professor of biology at UW-Madison’s Waisman Center who uses fetal tissue to study Down syndrome. “That additional level of review was not necessary because we were already following all the guidance, all the laws, all the compliance requirements.”
Bhattacharyya’s research involving fetal tissue has continued because she received a grant before new funding stopped nearly two years ago. She applied for another grant in November and expects to learn by June if she will get it, a process that may have taken longer if the previous advisory board was involved, she said.
Wisconsin Right to Life, which last year praised the advisory board’s scrutiny of proposals involving fetal tissue, is “troubled that the (Biden) administration would decide to revert back to an Obama era way of doing things at NIH,” said Heather Weininger, executive director. “As the research world continues to look for better results in caring for the sick, we should not be relying on unethical resources for testing and production of vaccines or treatments.”
Seven research projects at UW-Madison are approved to use fetal tissue, including work focused on infectious diseases, visual impairments and neurodevelopment, said spokesperson Kelly Tyrrell. Additional labs use a mouse model generated using fetal tissue to study the human immune system.
A UW-Madison proposal was among those reviewed by the advisory board last year, but it wasn’t clear if it was among those voted down or was the one supported because the government didn’t disclose the identities of the proposals, university spokesperson Eric Hamilton said at the time.
When asked about that proposal this week, Tyrrell referred a Wisconsin State Journal reporter to the NIH, where spokesperson Kathy Stover declined to comment.
“We are not aware of any studies that were halted because of the previous policy,” Tyrrell said. “It may be the case that some researchers chose not to submit proposals because of the earlier policy or saw some of their projects delayed, but it otherwise did not change work that was already ongoing.”
Bhattacharyya studies how Down syndrome’s altered brain development leads to intellectual disability. She studies skin cells from people with Down syndrome that are reprogrammed to become brain cells at an early stage of development. She compares those cells with tissue from aborted fetuses affected by Down syndrome to make sure her model mimics the disorder, she said.
“We use human fetal tissue as a reference, or the gold standard, for what is really going on in Down syndrome brain development,” she said. “The differences in how the brain develops mostly occur prenatally, when the brain is forming.”
She gets the tissue from tissue banks, including NIH’s NeuroBioBank and the University of Washington, and said she follows federal requirements including consent and no payment for the tissue.
The UW School of Medicine and Public Health and many other research institutions said in a letter last year to the federal advisory board that fetal tissue “has unique and valuable properties that often cannot be replaced by other cell types. Cells from fetal tissue are more flexible and less specialized than cells from adult tissue and can be more readily grown in culture.”
Bills seeking bans on fetal tissue research in Wisconsin have been introduced at least since 2015. In 2017, Wisconsin Right to Life joined Pro-Life Wisconsin, Wisconsin Family Action and the Wisconsin Catholic Conference in supporting bills to ban research using aborted fetal tissue and encourage donation for research of tissue from stillbirths and miscarriages.
The latest attempt to ban aborted fetal tissue research in Wisconsin was in November 2019, when a bill was introduced but not given a hearing.