The University of Minnesota is organizing an aggressive defense of fetal tissue research following missteps last year, when it angered legislators and incited protests by mistakenly denying that the controversial work took place on campus.
The campaign includes tighter rules on the way researchers acquire, use and dispose of the tissue. The U also will add security at home or work for as many as 10 researchers working with fetal tissue, which is controversial because it comes from elective abortions.
“It’s important the university be allowed to conduct research, including fetal tissue research, that has the potential to help improve the health and well-being of our society,” said Brian Herman, the U’s vice president for research.
The coordinated effort contrasts with a period of confusion last year, when university leaders sidestepped a national uproar by incorrectly stating that the U had no active fetal tissue studies.
Correspondence obtained by the Star Tribune showed the anxiety that followed when the truth emerged.
“It looks exactly like we don’t know what we are doing on this issue, which is not where we want to be,” U President Eric Kaler said in an Oct. 3 e-mail. “We have significant legislative, PR, and regent risk.”
In the past, U researchers had discretion to use fetal tissue without extra university oversight, as long as they complied with state and federal laws, Herman said. Research involving human subjects requires approval by an Institutional Review Board (IRB), but most of the fetal tissue studies involve “bench” science, not living subjects, and explore basic biology.
One study uses fetal stem cells to create human immune systems in mice to test HIV therapies. Another seeks clues to genetic activity during fetal development, and another tests stem cells from fetal neurons to determine if they can restore spinal cord function.
“We have to use the fetal tissue,” Herman said. “It’s not possible to use other kinds of cells. … For the most part, we don’t know enough yet about the normal way that fetal cells work to be able to replicate that using adult cells.”
Now, under two interim policies, scientists must obtain approval from an IRB or a stem cell oversight committee before using fetal tissue. Researchers must get the tissue from sources outside Minnesota and dispose of the remains in the same way as donated human cadavers. Previously, the U allowed for their disposal as biohazard waste.
The policy changes, available for public comment at the University Policy Library until Feb. 13, haven’t satisfied conservative lawmakers. A Jan. 15 letter to the Star Tribune by Rep. Abigail Whelan, R-Anoka, and 21 colleagues called for a ban on fetal tissue research.
“Given the controversial nature of this research, we believe it is the duty of the Legislature to request that the university prohibit all research on aborted human fetal organs, thereby removing itself from this controversy and respecting the moral stance of thousands of taxpaying Minnesotans,” the letter said.
‘No’ was inaccurate
In 2007 and 2008, lawmakers debated bans or restrictions on research involving fetal tissue, even as scientists argued that such early stage cells have regenerative qualities that are valuable in transplants and the creation of treatments.
Fresh questions surfaced last summer after Planned Parenthood clinics in other states were accused of illegally profiting from the sale of aborted fetal tissue. A Texas grand jury that convened to consider those allegations recently decided instead to indict the underground videographers who made the profiteering claims.
At the U, problems emerged in July after journalists asked whether university researchers were working with fetal tissue, and spokesmen replied no.
Those assurances were rooted in e-mails by Dr. Jakub Tolar, the director of the U’s Stem Cell Institute, and Duane Oyen in the division that accounts for incoming research materials.
University officials were relieved at first to sidestep the national controversy.
“That’s great news. As long as [the office of the vice president for research] isn’t aware of anything, I think we could avoid a formal statement and just let [journalists] know the answer is no,” wrote spokesman Evan Lapiska in a July 30 e-mail. “No point in giving them a senior leader quote … when a one-word answer may be enough to keep us out of a story.”
But “no” wasn’t the right answer.
An open records request last fall by Alpha News, a conservative-leaning news source, unearthed invoices showing that university faculty did receive fetal tissue.
In fact, 10 researchers are using fetal tissue. According to a summary provided to the Star Tribune, the studies target pediatric cancers, Parkinson’s disease and other diseases. A university spokesman said a list of researchers working with fetal tissue will be publicly released this week.
Thirty university invoices show payments since 2008 — ranging from $325 to $3,135 — for fetal tissue from StemExpress and Advanced Bioscience Resources. The two California nonprofits received the fetal tissue from clinics in Minnesota and other states. The Meadowbrook Women’s Clinic of Minneapolis — now named Whole Woman’s Health — also provided fetal tissue to the U in the past for fetal brain research, Herman said. Planned Parenthood’s regional affiliate that covers Minnesota was not involved in fetal tissue donation.
Herman said confusion over the U’s answer likely occurred because some officials thought they were checking on the existence of embryonic research, or fetal cell research specifically involving transplantation, which are often confused with fetal tissues in the public’s mind.
Nonetheless, the U’s flip-flop frustrated such regents as David McMillan, who in an Oct. 15 e-mail called the situation a “potentially crippling public affairs issue.”
Regent Laura Brod, who voted to restrict embryonic research when she served in the Minnesota House, also expressed concern. In an Oct. 13 e-mail, she said university leaders were “shrugging” off the collateral damage of the fetal tissue disclosure even as they found “a strict interpretation of the statutes as armor for a defense” about the legality of the research.
Minnesota law is murky on fetal tissue donation. The stem cell research statute permits such donations, but the Anatomical Gift Act says consenting adults in the state can only donate “a stillborn infant or an embryo or fetus that has died of natural causes in utero.” Fetal death from an induced abortion isn’t deemed natural causes.
Profiteering would violate laws requiring that fetal tissue be donated, but the university determined that its providers only billed to ship and preserve the tissue.
Legal reviews found that “the university’s research with human fetal tissue does not violate any Minnesota or federal laws,” according to a statement from the U’s Office of the General Counsel.
Even so, the university’s new policy requires researchers to obtain fetal tissue that was donated in states other than Minnesota.
“We live in a community that has a set of very diverse views,” Herman said. “We do want to be as respectful as we can be in dealing with this material.”