Indiana lawmakers banned the use of aborted fetal tissue in research in 2016. But soon after, the law was blocked by a federal court after Indiana University sued, claiming the law was unconstitutionally vague and unduly burdensome.
But in a surprising turn of events, last month, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the lower court’s decision in a 2-1 vote, lifting the injunction and bringing the Indiana law one step closer to taking effect.
To date, at least 14 other states have passed similar laws that place restrictions on the transfer, sale, receipt, and/or use of aborted fetal tissue for experimentation. Indiana’s ban was signed into law by then-Gov. Mike Pence.
The 7th Circuit’s move is a positive step, and the Trump administration should emulate it by shelving all aborted fetal-tissue use at the federal level.
The ruling came just months after a congressional hearing that explored alternatives to fetal tissue research. At that hearing, we testified about how important research and medical advances can move forward using alternatives that don’t rely on aborted fetuses.
Endless propaganda and scare tactics suggest that life-saving research will suddenly stop if aborted fetal tissue research is not allowed.
That’s not true. Restrictions will allow better and more advanced—and noncontroversial—alternatives to be deployed and discovered.
So, how can important research be done with alternatives? We outline four recommendations.
Recommendation 1: Increase targeted National Institutes of Health funding to $100 million to validate existing alternative models and accelerate development of new models that don’t rely on the use of human fetal tissue obtained from elective abortions.
The National Institutes of Health announced last year that it would invest up to $20 million over the next two years to develop alternatives to fetal tissue research, but that isn’t ambitious enough if the goal is moving away from aborted fetal tissue in research in a timely manner.
Therefore, we strongly urge greater investment by the Department of Health and Human Services, with highest priority being given to alternatives in research.
That would involve increasing National Institutes of Health funds for development of alternatives to $100 million, the same amount currently used to fund fetal tissue research, and making these funds rapidly available to researchers through a fast-track grant review process.
Increased funding would, in part, aim to improve “humanized” mouse models (mice with a human immune system) for HIV research.
The “BLT” mouse—generated with aborted fetal bone marrow, liver, and thymus tissues—is commonly used in HIV research. But other successful, innovative models are available that use human peripheral blood lymphocytes, hematopoietic stem cells from umbilical cord blood, and neonatal thymus tissue.
Despite these advances, recent reports highlight that there is still a need for development of even better, novel humanized mouse models, because of current limitations with all models, including those generated using aborted fetal tissue.
With the field rapidly evolving, now is the time to increase funding for the best and most ethical scientific methods.
Recommendation 2: Perform an in-depth cost analysis of research using aborted fetal tissue versus the alternatives.
It’s more efficient and cost-effective to obtain ethical alternatives compared with aborted fetal tissue. That’s because tissues normally discarded can be donated from living individuals undergoing routine surgical and biopsy procedures, as well as labor and delivery.
We propose that an in-depth analysis be done of the costs to obtain alternative tissues compared to aborted fetal tissue. This information is important for creating awareness in the medical community of existing alternatives, cost savings, and mechanisms for procuring such tissue.
In just one example, alternative tissue in the form of donated neonatal thymus from surgical procedures is 50 times more efficient and 1,000 times more cost-effective than obtaining aborted fetal tissue for generating humanized mice.
That means that a researcher using aborted fetal tissue would need to spend an additional $40,000 to make the same number of humanized mice as would be generated with alternative tissue.
Recommendation 3: Invest in tissue banks that make alternative sources of fresh tissue readily available to researchers.
Tissue banks are important for procuring alternative tissues and making them available to all researchers in a cost-effective and efficient manner.
Core facilities can also be beneficial for providing high-quality, custom-made alternative tissue-derived products, such as adult stem cells, induced pluripotent stem cells, and organoids for studying various types of human disease. Those include brain development and neurodevelopmental disorders, human immune response, stroke, Parkinson’s, and spinal cord injury.
Similar tissue banks are currently available in the U.S. and work directly with internal medical staffs to make alternative tissues available to researchers.
Tissue banks save researchers time and money. However, not every academic institution is fortunate enough to have this type of tissue bank, leaving researchers to develop their own protocols for acquiring such tissue. That’s time consuming and may not even be possible, given the type of medical procedures performed at their institution and the specific tissue needed.
Recommendation 4: Set a sunset date for all aborted fetal tissue use.
In states without restrictions, there’s little or no incentive for researchers to stop using aborted fetal tissue, because it’s accessible, is deeply entrenched in the culture, and continues to receive federal funding to subsidize tissue sourcing.
When President George W. Bush introduced a ban on federal funding for research on newly created embryonic stem cell lines, numerous advances in stem cell research occurred, including the discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells, which revolutionized research and medical advancement.
Establishing a sunset date for federal funding of aborted fetal tissue procurement and research use would likewise provide a substantive incentive for development of modern scientific models.
For all of these reasons, the Indiana law should be seen as an opportunity, not a burden, for researchers to discover scientifically better alternatives with genuine hope of treating disease and disability.