The science of fetal cells has been hidden from the public under Trump
Officials at the National Institutes of Health refrained from publishing promising federally-funded research on human fetal tissue cells at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, calling a study a “political landmine.”
The decision, revealed in public documents obtained by BuzzFeed News in connection with a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, shows how senior NIH officials under the Trump administration, hostile to such research because of its anti-abortion policy, managed the promotion of the study.
The study – which involved “humanized” mice with cells from fetal tissue – was published in the journal Cell Reports in April 2020. Prior to publication, NIH officials said, “It won’t help us announce this. peculiar discovery, “according to a March 20, 2020, email from a publicist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML) in Hamilton, Montana.
Studies like this are usually promoted through a press release, with scientists being made available for interviews. Instead, the NIH appears to have deliberately avoided this kind of promotion for this study because of the political risks.
Ideally, scientific information should be shared with the public in an open and transparent manner, and be the subject of honest debate, said Dietram Scheufele, a science communication expert at the University of Wisconsin. In the face of climate change, stem cells, and other research that has become politically charged and hyper-partisan in recent decades, however, federal research agencies have had to carefully weigh how they describe new research to avoid political backlash.
âThe history of NIH takes this to the next level,â Scheufele said. âThe partisan nature of American politics has brought us to a point where the question is no longer ‘how’ to talk about emerging science, but ‘whether’ to talk to the public about emerging science. And it’s a bad place for science and for society.
NIH officials did not respond to requests for comment on BuzzFeed News emails.
Funded in part by the NIH, the Cell Reports study found that dampening the early immune response to infection in human lung cells resulted in a stronger overall response to disease – a surprising finding made just as SARS – CoV-2 was leading to a deadly respiratory illness pandemic world.
“In view of the coronavirus epidemic, it contains important information that could potentially help people with weakened or elderly immune systems,” said one of the study’s authors, prominent biologist Irving Weissman, director of the Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, in a quote for a possible press release (which never materialized) on the outcome, contained in the emails.
However, the result came just after the work of another study author, NIH’s Kim Hasenkrug, became the focus of a Washington Post report that the Trump administration’s 2019 ban on research on human fetal tissue was blocking his lab’s research into coronavirus treatments. Specialized mice in the lab were transplanted with human fetal tissue that developed into lungs, the main tissue destroyed by the novel coronavirus at the time. Although the infection in the study was due to HIV, the authors suggested that its findings could strengthen treatments for the Epstein-Barr virus, shingles and hepatitis, as well as other diseases.
With political pressure after this story and the Trump administration recently announcing the establishment of a Fetal Tissue Grants Review Panel, the NIAID ultimately failed to send out a press release or tweet – two common ways to present the research funded by the agency – about the April 2020 study. Cell Reports tweeted the results on April 20, 2020.
By order of the press office at NIH headquarters, reporters’ questions about fetal tissue research were forwarded to a representative of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), a politically appointed person who did not answered questions from this reporter at the time. .
In emails obtained via FOIA, two NIH officials spoke about Hasenkrug saying he did not want to speak to the press about the study. âHonestly, I wouldn’t suggest it anyway,â wrote an NIH deputy director. “Political land mine.”
Hasenkrug did not return a request for comment.
Federal agencies, congressional offices, and state and local governments significantly prevent journalists from gaining independent insight into their work and the work they fund, said Kathryn Foxhall, vice chair of the Freedom Committee. information from the Society of Professional Journalists. They regularly prohibit contact between staff and journalists, while disseminating information to the press and the public that they deem to be news.
âRemoving press alerts for political reasons is an illustration of this unreasonable conflict of interest running through all of this,â Foxhall said, after reviewing e-mails from the NIH.
And although one journal published the fetal tissue study, she added, the NIH’s decision not to publish it meant that most medical professionals, who rely on national media or specialist medical media for the information, have not heard of it.
Human fetal tissue research burst into U.S. politics in the summer of 2015, when anti-abortion activists posted covertly recorded videos of themselves posing as a biomedical research firm seeking to purchase drugs. Aborted fetal tissue donated to medical research as part of an advocacy campaign against Planned Parenthood. They found no takers and no investigation revealed any wrongdoing on the part of the clinics. But the uproar that followed appeared in the murder of three people at a Colorado Springs clinic later that year.
After Trump won the 2016 presidential election, his administration banned the use of fetal cells by federal researchers and instituted a review panel largely made up of abortion opponents for research involving them. Meeting with little notice, the panel last year rejected 13 of the 14 NIH proposals already approved.
All this, despite medical researchers who for decades used cells taken from aborted human fetuses to create vaccines against everything from polio to measles, and to study diseases ranging from cancer to blindness. Some COVID-19 vaccines have relied on fetal cells in their development, for example, drawing protests from some activists but leading the Vatican to accept their use for Catholics, due to the extreme dangers posed by the disease.
“The degree to which the sad and private act of obtaining an abortion occupies our national consciousness is just bizarre,” obstetrician-gynecologist Nanette Santoro of the University of Medicine School of Medicine told BuzzFeed News. Colorado, asked to comment on NIH’s decision to hesitate to publish the Cell Reports study. As a reproductive specialist with over 35 years of experience studying human reproduction, she added, “the associations of all that is reproductive for any purpose with abortion contaminate the subject to the point where funding in my field is shockingly low “.
âMost reasonable people would find this confusing,â Santaro said. “But we are not living in reasonable times.”
In the Cell Reports study itself, Trump’s executive order banning government scientists from using human fetal tissue in research is noted. “Without a lifting of the ban, other experiments cannot go forward,” the study concludes.
That ban was lifted in April by the new Biden administration, which also ended the review panel full of abortion opponents.
âWhat is scientifically possible has long pushed the boundaries of what societies think is prudent, moral or desirable. And the answers are inherently political, âsaid University of Wisconsin expert Scheufele. These debates depend on the best science available for the decisions made, he added.
“If we let the hyperpartisan derail this, science and society are screwed up.”