On Friday, a Trump administration panel erected to judge the ethics of federally funded research relying on human fetal cells met more than a year after it was first announced. Just hours before the meeting, the panel was revealed to be stacked with abortion opponents hostile to such research.
Human fetal cells are widely used in medical research to develop vaccines — notably in at least a half dozen current candidate coronavirus vaccines — as well for studying diseases including AIDS. The National Institutes of Health Human Fetal Tissue Research Ethics Advisory Board was initially announced in June of last year, putting a hold on grant applications for medical research involving human fetal cells. It followed the Trump administration’s moves to cancel related federal research contracts and audit human fetal cell research.
“The committee was carefully constructed to block funding,” bioethicist R. Alta Charo of the University of Wisconsin Law School, who spoke during the one-hour open session of the meeting, told BuzzFeed News by email. The next five hours of the meeting will be closed to the public to review federal grants.
The ethics panel will review all NIH medical research grant applications already approved for possible funding that include use of fetal cells, reporting directly to Department of Health and Human Services head Alex Azar, and bypassing NIH chief Francis Collins. The first meeting was quietly announced earlier this month in the Federal Register, and its membership was not made public until 8 a.m. on Friday morning.
The panel will be headed by bioethicist Paige Comstock Cunningham, interim president of the evangelical Taylor University in Indiana, the home state of Vice President Mike Pence, widely seen as the leading abortion opponent in the Trump administration. Its 15 members include David Prentice of the Charlotte Lozier Institute, known for his opposition to human embryonic stem cell research during the Bush administration, and other opponents who have previously testified against fetal cell research to Congress.
NIH official Lawrence Tabak, who opened the meeting, noted that the committee’s role was not to review the science of the proposed research, which had already been approved for NIH grant funding, but to comment on its ethics for Azar. The board is not required to come to a consensus in its views.
The yearlong wait for the ethics board meeting had stalled research on HIV, Down syndrome, and diabetes, the Washington Post reported in January. The cells, grown from induced abortion tissues collected decades ago, serve as a “gold standard” in research, according to a Wednesday statement signed by more than 90 major medical universities and scientific organizations.
“Research using human fetal tissue has been essential for scientific and medical advances that have saved millions of lives, and it remains a crucial resource for biomedical research,” said the letter.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the use of fetal research tissue has emerged as a flashpoint in the Trump administration’s handling of the epidemic, noted Stanford University researcher Irving Weissman, who spoke during a public comments session. NIH blocking fetal cell research has already shut down academic research aimed at testing coronavirus vaccines and treatments in mice grafted with human fetal lung cells, he said. That notably could include intranasal inoculations that could block coronavirus infections in the mouth, nose, and throat.
"They are withholding therapies for the rest of us, including their own families," Weissman told BuzzFeed News.
In April, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and other abortion opponents told the Trump administration that it should “incentivize” the development of coronavirus vaccines made without human fetal cells, but did not oppose two “Operation Warp Speed” vaccines that did. Whether coronavirus vaccine research proposals would be reviewed by the ethics board on Friday was unknown, due to confidentiality rules.
Abortion opponents are split on the ethics of the Moderna mRNA vaccine, whose Phase 3 clinical trial launched on Monday is the first US vaccine to undergo wide testing in people. While the vaccine itself does not involve fetal cells, some of its development work may have involved them, John Di Camillo, an ethicist with the National Catholic Bioethics Center, told BuzzFeed News.
The balance of the ethics panel’s membership, whether research supporters or abortion opponents, will largely determine what opinions are delivered to Azar, added Di Camilo. By its charter, the board is required to contain a balance of viewpoints, but during the group’s introductions, numerous members of the panel identified themselves by affiliation with a religious institution or faith while describing their scientific or medical credentials.