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Ethical Research Using Donated Fetal Tissue Benefits Human Welfare, AAAS Says

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Child receiving polio vaccine | Jim Holmes, AusAID

While emphasizing the importance of strong ethical guidelines, AAAS this week urged policymakers to support research using donated fetal tissue, which was essential for developing a vaccine to combat polio in the 1930s, and today supports studies of the Zika virus, eye development and disease, and human fetal development.

Contrary to current political arguments over fetal-tissue research, “The decision to terminate pregnancy does not bear on the decision to donate tissue,” AAAS CEO Rush Holt emphasized in a 25 April letter to a panel of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee. 

Rather, research has shown that such decisions relate to a woman’s socioeconomic status, age, health, and marital status, the AAAS letter explained. Further, existing guidelines stipulate that the option to donate tissue cannot be discussed with a woman until after she has made a decision to terminate a pregnancy, wrote Holt, executive publisher of the Science family of journals. 

Scientists are now using fetal tissue to study how the Zika virus causes devastating fetal deaths and birth defects such as microcephaly, Holt noted. Using stem cells from donated fetal liver tissue, researchers are also developing a potential new prenatal stem-cell therapy to treat osteogenesis imperfecta, known as brittle bone disease. For many research purposes, using animal or adult tissue may not offer the same benefits as donated fetal tissue, AAAS reported. Studies on animals are not always predictive of results in humans, Holt wrote.
AAAS further expressed concern over reports that the committee’s Select Investigative Panel might issue subpoenas, thereby making public the names of researchers, students, and others involved in fetal-tissue research. “There is, unfortunately, a history of scientists being harassed and threatened for conducting certain types of research, and AAAS has long sought to support and defend these researchers,” Holt’s letter said.

The association’s long-standing position is that “research on cells derived from all sources , when conducted under strong ethical guidelines, should be conducted to answer questions about human health and development,” Holt wrote.