Scientists Fear Curbs Over Abortion
By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 26, 2001; Page A03
Scientific research groups are becoming increasingly concerned that President Bush may block federal funds for research on so-called embryonic stem cells -- the recently discovered class of cells derived from discarded human embryos and aborted fetuses that show promise against many different diseases.
But equally alarming, some researchers say, are signals from the White House that Bush might also cut off existing funding for a related and much larger branch of research: studies that rely on conventional tissues retrieved from induced abortions.
For months, Bush and his spokesmen have said that the administration would oppose taxpayer support for any research that relies on tissues from induced abortions. His comments have largely been interpreted as referring to stem cell research, one of the hottest and most controversial new fields of biomedical research.
But more ordinary kinds of cells and tissues from induced abortions have long served as workhorses of scientific investigation -- not because they can cure diseases directly, as stem cells may be able to do, but because they grow well under laboratory conditions and are highly versatile.
Research on these conventional fetal tissues has never been subject to special restrictions. An executive order halting federal support for such research would cut off more than $20 million in federal grants aimed at understanding birth defects, developing vaccines and treating conditions such as Parkinson's disease.
The main concern with using tissues from induced abortions is that it may encourage women to terminate their pregnancies because the fetal tissues could be used to help desperate patients or medical research. Some also believe such tissues are ethically tainted.
As an alternative to such studies, Bush has said he supports research using fetal tissues retrieved from spontaneous abortions. That's a position endorsed by the Roman Catholic church.
"We're not against research or medical progress," said Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities. "We're against the research establishment having to collaborate with the abortion industry."
Bush has also said he supports research on other kinds of stem cells, which can be obtained from adults instead of from embryos or fetuses. Recent studies suggest that adult stem cells have great therapeutic potential. But because no one knows whether they will prove as useful as embryonic or fetal cells, many researchers favor pursuing both routes simultaneously.
Administration spokesmen Ari Fleischer and Scott McClellan have declined repeatedly in recent days to clarify what policy changes, if any, the administration intends to make other than to reiterate Bush's past comments. "The president has consistently said he opposes taxpayer funding of fetal tissue research from induced abortions," McClellan said again on Wednesday.
Speaking on background, some representatives of patients' groups have said in recent days that they are fearful of pressing the point in the hope that administration officials are still familiarizing themselves with the issue.
But others said fetal tissue and embryo cell research may indeed be targets, given the new administration's recent statements and actions in the abortion arena -- including Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson's promise to reconsider federal approval of the French abortion pill mifepristone, or RU-486, and Bush's executive order prohibiting the use of federal funds for abortion services overseas.
"I wouldn't be surprised if this is the next thing they tackle," said a Democratic Senate aide who tracks health care issues, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Research using tissues from induced abortions received $20.6 million in National Institutes of Health support in 1999, the last year for which figures are available. More than 135 NIH-funded projects rely specifically on fetal tissues, and many more are believed to use those tissues incidentally.
Among the NIH-funded studies is one in California in which human fetal tissues have been transplanted into mice to create rodents with humanized immune systems, useful for the study of AIDS. Another project uses human fetal brain cells to understand the molecular mechanisms that underlie multiple sclerosis.
Moreover, fetal cells are routinely used in research on new vaccines.
"Every member of Congress has probably had their children vaccinated with vaccines made with human fetal cells," said Michael West, president and chief executive of Advanced Cell Technology Inc. in Worcester, Mass., a biotechnology company working with embryonic cells. "The thought of disallowing this is horrifying."
McClellan said Bush is also opposed to the use of federal funds for the transplant of tissues from induced abortions into patients -- a procedure that Presidents George Bush and Ronald Reagan banned through executive orders, that President Bill Clinton allowed and that has recently begun to show promise for Parkinson's patients.
"If such funding were restricted, there would be a collapse of progress in treatments that could repair the brains of people with Parkinson's and other neurological diseases like Huntington's disease, Alzheimer's and even stroke," said Curt Freed, director of the University of Colorado School of Medicine's neuroscience center in Denver, who is leading a major study of fetal cell transplants into the brains of patients with Parkinson's.
"As a physician," Freed said, "I think it's preferable to help people with these tissues that would otherwise be discarded." He said tissues from spontaneous abortions are not a useful alternative.
In a $2 million study initiated by the previous Bush administration, researchers examined tissues from 1,250 spontaneous abortions and 247 ectopic pregnancies -- abnormal pregnancies that must be aborted early because they pose a risk to the mothers' lives. Only seven tissue samples were deemed "potentially useful" for transplantation research.
A 1993 law spells out ethics requirements that must be fulfilled if federal funds are to be made available for research involving the transplantation of human fetal cells. The act separates a woman's decision to abort from any request to use her fetal tissues, and it precludes women from directing donated tissues to friends or relatives.
Having recently promulgated similar rules for stem cell research, the NIH has now begun to accept grant proposals in that area. Researchers said they have tried to use spontaneous abortions as a source of stem cells, but to no avail.
"We found it was
not feasible at all to rely on this," said John Gearhart, the Johns Hopkins
scientist who discovered stem cells in human fetuses in 1998.
© 2001 The Washington Post Company