The Trump administration has quietly shuttered a government-run study seeking a cure for HIV because Christian conservatives object to research using human fetal tissue. The move comes while the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) conducts an audit on the use of fetal tissue in research as it determines whether to continue funding such research.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) ended a seven-year contract with the laboratory at the University of California at San Francisco’s Gladstone Center for AIDS Research. The lab uses “humanized mice,” mice implanted with human fetal tissue provided by women who have undergone legal abortions. The move came after 85 Republican House members wrote a letter to the Food and Drug Administration, a related HHS department, objecting to a contract with a California company that is the research community’s only provider of fetal tissue.
There are no scientifically valid alternatives for this kind of research; other cells cannot replace fetal tissue in biomedical research, and mice are one of the few animals that can be infected with HIV.
Pulling the plug on promising gains is an enormous setback for the fight against the disease. The lab was poised to begin an experiment that would have tested an emerging theory on why HIV takes hold in the human body so quickly.
“This effectively stops all of our research to discover a cure for HIV,” wrote researcher Kim Hasenkrug, who was to supply the humanized mice for the collaborative study with the San Francisco-based lab on the HIV antibody, in an email to Warner Greene, the director of the Gladstone Center for AIDS Research in San Francisco.
HHS told Hasenkrug, who focuses on HIV and other viruses at the Rocky Mountain Laboratories, part of the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, they could no longer procure fetal tissue from Advanced Bioscience Resources, the only provider of fetal tissue for scientists around the country without direct access to aborted fetal tissue. HHS terminated its $15,900 contract with ABR and the Food and Drug Administration in late September, after the Republican House members raised objections.
That directive by the HHS pulled the plug on the new study, which was ready to begin.
And ramping up again even if the study got the green light to move forward would take a year to get back in position, Greene said.
The move to shut down the contract and research shocked scientists as the NIH said there would only be a “pause in place” on research while it examined procurement practices. Now other labs are fearful they will get the same treatment, even non-NIH labs that receive NIH funding.
“Everything I am doing involves humanized mice,” said Jerome Zach, who has used humanized mice for his 25 years studying HIV at UCLA. “It would shut my lab down if we were not able to use fetal tissues.”
In an emailed statement in response to an inquiry by ThinkProgress, the NIH said the intent was never to cause research to stop and that research with tissue on hand could proceed and asked that NIH leaders be notified if new procurement were necessary.
HHS terminated its contract with ABR and the FDA in September, citing insufficient assurance the contract included appropriate protections applicable to fetal tissue research. However, fetal tissue research is heavily regulated under the NIH Revitalization Act of 1993.
The move follows the unsettling establishment earlier this year of a new department within HHS, the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division, that was created to handle complaints from healthcare providers who did not wish to treat transgender people or perform abortions.