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Biden scraps human fetal tissue research limits while New York stops stem cell research funding

26 April 2021
Appeared in BioNews 1092

President Joe Biden's administration has reversed the Trump-era decision which restricted federal funding for medical research using human fetal tissue from abortions. 

A statement released by the US National Institute of Health (NIH) removed the ban on governmental researchers conducting such research and discontinued an ethical review board for screening external grant applications that was comprised primarily of individuals who publically oppose abortion.

'I'm relieved,' said Professor Alta Charo, professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in a Science article. 'I would call it a very welcome return to a socially responsible approach to the use of fetal tissue in research.' The announcement was similarly applauded by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, which stated: 'Ideologically driven politicians must not be allowed to interfere with this system on a whim.' 

The NIH ethical review board, established in June 2019, placed a bottleneck on human embryo research in the USA as they approved so few grant applications: just one out of 14 applications were approved in August 2020, for example. The decision to remove the board was welcomed in a statement from the International Society for Stem Cell Research. It emphasised the importance of fetal tissue research to create models of the human immune system that are essential for the development of past and future vaccines, including for COVID-19.

However, although restrictions have been lifted on a national scale, New York's scientific community has been impacted by the cancellation of the New York State Stem Cell Science programme (NYSTEM). The termination of NYSTEM was outlined in the state's budget for 2022, signed by New York governor Andrew Cuomo, despite a letter from ten Nobel laureates (who had no current financial reliance on the programme) condemning the proposition.

NYSTEM originated in 2007, offering a way to circumvent policies enacted by then-President George W Bush which restricted embryonic stem cell research funded by the NIH. The programme initially pledged $600 million over 11 years for research related to stem cells, and has spent only $400 million of that to date. 

NYSTEM had funded work that generated neurons from human stem cells to treat Parkinson's disease, which subsequently gained FDA-approval for a clinical trial in 2021. The method recently demonstrated safety in a preclinical study, highlighting the potential impact of the programme.

Therefore, while human embryo studies resume across the USA, the state of New York which is currently considered an international hub of stem cell research, will become scientifically constrained. Over the ensuing months, the state may experience a loss of researchers as they move to work on projects now run elsewhere, which could lead to a shift in the landscape of the scientific community in the USA.

Biden administration scraps human fetal tissue research restrictions
Science |  16 April 2021
Federal officials reverse limits on fetal tissue research
Yahoo! News |  16 April 2021
New York state ends stem cell research funding
Science |  16 April 2021
New York to stop funding embryonic-stem-cell research
National Review |  19 April 2021
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