Some in the scientific community have concerns after the latest policy changes regarding fetal tissue research in the United States, according to an opinion piece published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

On June 5, 2019, the Department of Health and Human Services announced a new policy prohibiting the “procurement of new fetal tissue for intramural research at the National Institutes of Health,” as well as establishing an additional layer of qualitative scrutiny for extramural fetal tissue research, according to author Mary Woolley, MA, of Research!America in Arlington, Virginia. These policies terminate a long-standing fetal tissue research contract with the University of California, San Francisco.

“What do these developments mean for medical progress?” asked Ms Woolley. “Simply stated, there will be less of it, and slowed progress in the United States has implications now and for future generations worldwide.”

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Ms Woolley and coauthor Eleanor Dehoney, MS, also of Research!America, noted that fetal tissue research contributed to the development of treatments for conditions such as HIV/AIDS, rheumatoid arthritis, cystic fibrosis, and hemophilia, as well as the development of vaccines for adenovirus, polio, varicella, measles, and rabies. Insights from current fetal tissue research are informing the development of treatments to prevent Zika virus transmission as well.

“Even if — and this is a huge if — a resource similar to fetal tissue could be identified… fetal tissue research is foundational to the study of early human development,” Ms Woolley noted. “Impeding that area of research has enormous consequences.”

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While reviewing these policy changes, the Trump administration announced that ≤$20 million would be earmarked for research in 2019 and 2020 that would focus on identifying alternatives to fetal tissue research; however, Ms Woolley noted, this diversion of time and resources from current research is not benign.

Already patients are up against limited funding, with fewer than one-quarter of peer-reviewed grant proposals receiving funding.

“Nearly 120,000 Americans younger than 45 years die each year because of health threats we can, but have not yet, overcome,” Ms Woolley wrote. “Given the stakes, it is difficult to justify the diversion of research dollars into finding alternatives to science that is thoroughly reviewed and already highly competitive.”

Fetal tissue research is a “long-standing, carefully vetted, and proven path to progress in medicine and public health,” Ms Woolley concluded. “Stifling this research does harm without doing good.”


Woolley M, Dehoney E. The implications of obstructing fetal tissue research [published online July 23, 2019]. Ann Intern Med. doi:10.7326/M19-2061