Washington – Justin Cotney uses embryonic tissue for his research as the University of Connecticut health center into why some children develop cleft palate.
“We’re trying to understand early brain and early craniofacial development,” he said. He is helped by a research grant from the National Institutes of Health.
But the use of fetal tissue from abortions is now coming under attack by conservative Republicans who have been thwarted in their attempt to defund Planned Parenthood for the part it plays in providing the material to labs.
Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to establish a 13-member panel that will investigate fetal tissue procurement as well as abortion procedures.
“This is a discussion that this country must have — we cannot shy away from what is an unsettling topic,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.
A bill that would restrict federal funding of fetal tissue research to that acquired from stillbirths has also been filed in the House.
And in the Senate, a group of Republican senators have written the Department of Health and Human Service’s inspector general requesting an investigation of the federal government’s support of fetal tissue research.
Some states have already begun to try to curb this type of medical study. North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory signed a bill last week that banned the transfer of fetal tissue from aborted fetuses in his state to medical labs. Wisconsin is among five states considering bills that would outlaw medical research using tissues from embryos.
This new political focus on this type of scientific study “definitely concerns me, but I hope cooler heads prevail,” Cotney said.
Research using fetal tissue is rare. NIH gave out about $76 million in grants for this type of work last year, a modest amount considering the billions of dollars the federal government spends on medical research overall. But the use of fetal tissue in medical science has been around since the 1930s and helped develop cures and vaccines.
In 1954, West Hartford native John Enders, Thomas Weller, and Frederick Robbins used fetal tissue in their work on the polio virus that paved the way for the Salk and Sabin vaccines and won them a Nobel prize.
Fetal tissue is now being used in research of HIV, Alzheimer’s, autism, spinal cord injuries and other conditions.
Yale University was awarded more than $4.5 million last year from NIH for medical research that used fetal tissue for projects that included investigations into brain development, producing immunity for HIV and a hepatitis B study
Cotney said fetal tissue research is key to understanding early development of the face and palates.
“Currently, there is no other way to model this,” he said.
He said he only uses materials from embryos that are no older than eight weeks. He obtains embryonic material from the Human Developmental Biology Resource, a tissue bank supported by the MRC-Wellcome Trust in the United Kingdom; and says UConn pays only for the cost of shipping.
“We are doing something with this material which would otherwise be thrown in the garbage,” Cotney said.
Nada Zecevic, another UConn researcher, uses fetal tissue in her study of the cerebral cortex.
But those who want to defund Planned Parenthood say a series of undercover videos show an unethical and illegal trade in “baby body parts” between abortion providers and scientists. Under the law, making a profit from acquisition of fetal tissue is illegal. Planned Parenthood said it is paid only for expenses incurred in handling, storing, freezing and shipping the tissue.
Conservatives threatened to shut down the government over the issue and it took the resignation of House Speaker John Boehner to derail that plan. With his job no longer on the line, Boehner was able pass a stop-gap budget that continued funding for Planned Parenthood by ignoring the wishes of a majority of House Republicans and tapping House Democrats, including every member of the Connecticut delegation, for votes.
But the issue is far from over. Besides the House panel researching fetal tissue procurement, there is a separate House investigation into Planned Parenthood.
Several GOP presidential candidates, including Sen. Ted Cruz and Carly Fiorina, have also taken up the issue.