The U.S. government, according to a written statement by the National Institutes of Health, or NIH, funded the transplantation of human fetal tissue taken from abortions performed in the 20th week of pregnancy into a laboratory mouse that is used in AIDS research.
President Bush has said that he wants to stop federal funding of fetal-tissue research, and the issue is certain to spark intense debate later this year when Congress takes up the appropriations bill for the Department of Health and Human Services (which oversees NIH).
At the end of a series of often misleading and contradictory written answers given in response to three sets of written questions submitted over the past month by this reporter, NIH’s Office of Communications and Public Liaison finally conceded that a fetal tissue “research protocol at the University of Pennsylvania did require 20-week-old tissue.” In other written responses, NIH repeatedly said the mouse “requires fetal tissue older than 20 weeks.”
The researchers in this federal program use a creature called the SCID-hu BTL mouse, which carries a human immune system, created by the transplantation of human fetal thymus, liver, lymph node and long bone. Once transplanted with this tissue, the mice are infected with HIV and, in the research at Penn, examined to see how HIV affects the central nervous system.
In a written statement, NIH said that, since sometime prior to 1999, researchers at Penn have used “approximately 15-18” post-20-week fetuses in creating these mice.
When asked “by what method were these 20-week fetuses aborted?” the NIH responded: “Abortions are coordinated through the Anatomic Gift Foundation and Advanced Bioscience Resources, suppliers of fetal tissue, the method of abortion is not known to the investigator.”
But a spokesman at the Anatomic Gift Foundation said that AGF permanently terminated all involvement with fetal tissue on Jan. 1, 2000, after the organization was picketed by pro-lifers. He said that prior to that time the organization maintained a technician at a clinic (that was not located near Philadelphia) that did abortions on fetuses up to “21 or 22 weeks” of gestation. AGF paid approximately a few hundred dollars a month to “rent” space in the clinic, the spokesman said, but neither paid for the fetal tissue it collected there nor requested that the timing or method of any abortion be altered. They did not “coordinate” abortions, he said, responding to the language used by the NIH in its statement.
In response to repeated written inquiries, NIH failed to provide a copy of the consent form used in this research or to directly answer whether women donating post-20-week fetuses to NIH-funded research using SCID-hu BTL mice were informed that tissue from their fetus was going to be transplanted into a mouse. The AGF spokesman was uncertain whether the women would have been so informed.
“We do have a consent form that allows for medical research,” he said, but “the specifics of such research may not be touched upon. The consent form indicated that they had a desire to donate the tissue — with no expectation of financial gain — for the benefit of medical science and education.”
A spokesman for Advanced Bioscience Resources said the organization would not comment on the matter because all of its “contracts” with researchers are confidential.
The trail that led to this government-funded late-term-abortion-based research at Penn actually started at Pennsylvania State University Hershey Medical Center. Since 1994, the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes (NINDS) has funded a project called “The Human Fetal Tissue and Primary Neuroglial Cell Culture Core” run by a researcher at Hershey.
The latest publicly available grant abstract for this “Core” states that it would “provide segments of human fetal long bone for construction of SCID mice carrying xenografts of the human immune system SCID-hu BTL (Bone-Thy/liv-Lymph Node) mouse.” The abstract also says, “As outlined, human fetal tissues and cells will be delivered from Harrisburg/Hershey to Philadelphia within 4 hours of the surgical procedure by courier.” This tissue was destined for researchers at Penn.
Responding to a first round of written questions, NIH offered written responses to Human Events that it said “represent a coordinated answer between NINDS program staff and the researchers at Hershey Medical Center.” In these coordinated answers, NIH conceded that the “Core” was extracting tissue from fetuses ranging in gestational age from 10 to 17 weeks to culture fetal brain and lung cells. (Later, NIH said this tissue could not come from fetuses younger than 10 weeks because at that age, “tissues are too difficult or not possible to identify.”)
‘Within four hours’
But when asked why it was crucial to have “human fetal tissue” arrive in Philadelphia “within 4 hours” of an abortion, the “coordinated” answers said, “This question relates to the SCID-hu BTL model. The tissue for this model is no longer provided by the Human Fetal Tissue and Primary Neuroglial Cell Culture Core due to the need for fetuses of gestational age of greater than 20 weeks.”
NIH then said: “The immune components relevant to establishment of a SCID-hu BTL mouse model are not sufficiently developed in fetuses of the gestational age range obtained for the Human Fetal Tissue and Primary Neuroglial Cell Culture Core.” Then it said, “A gestational age of greater than 20 weeks is required to provide immune components of an appropriate developmental stage.”
In answer to a series of questions asking “what gestational age does the fetal donor need to be to contribute” either long bone, or liver, or thymus or lymph node to create the SCID-hu BTL, NIH said that the answer was the “same” for each type of tissue — that is, “a gestational age of greater than 20 weeks.”
In a follow-up letter, NIH was asked why 20 weeks — rather than 18 or 24 weeks — was the cut off point for this tissue? “Prior experimentation by other investigators,” said NIH, “had determined that immune cell populations prior to that point were not suitable developmentally.”
In the follow-up, NIH was asked when the “Core” had started and when it had stopped providing post-20-week fetuses to create SCID-hu BTL mice. Now, NIH said the Core had “never” provided this tissue because “prior to starting this project researchers were told that the tissue for this project needed to be older than 20 weeks.” The decision not to collect this tissue, said NIH, was a “scientific” decision, not a policy one, and there was “no special documentation generated” to memorialize it.
Then NIH made what seemed like a categorical denial of NINDS involvement in post-20-week fetal tissue research. Twice NIH wrote: “NINDS does not fund research that requires fetal tissue older than 20 weeks.”
Asked, “Are they still using SCID-hu BTL mice in federally funded research at the University of Pennsylvania or Pennsylvania State,” NIH said: “To the best of our knowledge, there are no studies conducted at The Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine using the SCID-hu BTL mouse.”
But this answer left out Penn — in what turned out to be a Clintonesque omission.
In a third set of written inquiries, NIH was confronted with the abstract for a grant titled, “SCID-hu Model For HIV Infection of the CNS.” This grant program began in 1994 and is to terminate in 2004. The grant abstract says the researchers “have developed a novel SCID-hu model, SCID-hu BTL (Bone-Thy/liv-Lymph Node).” They intended to use it in three separate “specific goals” of their research. They were doing their research at Penn. It was funded by NINDS.
Now, NIH admitted that the “research protocol at the University of Pennsylvania did require 20-week-old tissue. All fetal tissue at all sites was used according to NIH policy.”
Is the research ongoing? The answer was cryptic: “This research began prior to 1999 and continues using mesenteric tissue.” Mesenteric tissue comes from the membrane that connects the intestines to the abdominal wall. It is not clear from this answer whether the research is still using post-20-week fetal tissue.
The NIH’s original, repeated stipulation that the fetal “immune tissue” — including the fetal liver and thymus — that make up the SCID-hu BTL must come from “older than 20-week” fetuses raised the obvious question of whether the much more commonly used SCID-hu thymus/liver model of mice also requires post-20-week abortions. The NIH itself maintains a contract with a California organization to produce 1,200 of these mice per year — with 50 mice being produced from each human “donor” fetus.
In written responses delivered May 9, NIH declined to answer a set of specific questions about its own SCID-hu Thy/liv mouse contract — while denying that this mouse requires post-20-week abortions. To make this denial, NIH needed to contradict its own previous “coordinated” answers that indicated even fetal thymus and liver tissue had to be older than 20 weeks to be “suitable developmentally.” “The Hershey researchers do not work with the Thy/Liv model,” the NIH said now, “however, they are free to express their opinion on what is needed for its production. Again, the Thy/Liv model does not require post-20-week tissue.”
In other words, the researchers at Hershey made a “scientific” decision to shut down a program already vetted and funded by the NIH based on what the NIH now says was a false scientific “opinion.”
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