Trump didn’t recover because he’s ‘a fighter.’ He can thank fetal tissue | Editorial

Posted Oct 21, 2020

President Trump got coronavirus, lived to tell about it, and likes to claim he was cured. What he doesn’t tell you is that his treatment depended on medical research using fetal tissue, a practice he’s attempting to ban.

He would deny future generations the benefit of just this kind of research, by siding with zealots like Vice President Mike Pence. The Trump administration effectively cut off federal funding for any more research that uses fetal cell lines – even to fight diseases like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, or find a vaccine for the next pandemic.

He set up a federal ethics board, stacked with ideologues opposed to fetal tissue research, that started denying virtually all funding proposals in August. He is undermining the science, while publicly praising it and reaping its fruits. In the words of Dr. Sean Morrison, a cancer researcher who directs the Children’s Medical Center Research Institute at UT Southwestern, “It is hypocrisy.”

Fetal tissue has been critical to understanding and developing therapies for cancers, neurological problems, HIV and other conditions like COVID. Most of this work is paid for by the National Institutes of Health, America’s biggest funding source for biomedical research. Few Americans realize that all these treatments are made possible by this basic research, which pharmaceutical companies won’t do.

Trump’s antibody cocktail from Regeneron was developed by using a fetal tissue cell line, as were the COVID vaccines now in clinical trials, before he officially began clamping down on this funding. It’s the next generation of anti-viral therapies that will be delayed, including efforts to save babies by preventing brain-damaging birth defects.

A woman who decides to have an abortion can opt to donate the fetal tissue to science. Since it would otherwise be discarded as biomedical waste, why not use it to try to cure horrible diseases like Zika?

The virus doesn’t infect mouse cells, so scientists need human cells to understand it. “Nobody in the scientific community uses these human tissues just for fun,” says Alexander Ploss, a virologist who runs a lab at Princeton. “It’s always because of need and the lack of alternatives.”

Fetal tissue research has had bipartisan support for decades. The NIH has invested millions every year, under both Democratic and Republican administrations. But Trump’s ethics board “was clearly constituted ... so as to include a large majority of members who are on the public record as being opposed to human fetal tissue research of any type,” wrote two dissenting board members. “This was clearly an attempt to block funding of as many contracts and grants as possible.”

Some argue that Trump isn’t a hypocrite, because the drug he took was developed using old fetal cell lines, not from a more recent abortion. But the harm to medical research is the same. Under his ban, scientists could not have developed a groundbreaking new therapy to stop the transmission of HIV, for instance.

And in practice, when the federal government or Pence, as governor of Indiana, put restrictions on fetal tissue research, they seldom make distinctions between decades-old fetal cell lines and fresh ones. The rules are vague, leaving scientists scrambling to figure out exactly what’s prohibited, Dr. Morrison says.

Trump has done many other things to undermine biomedical research, at a time when we depend on it profoundly. His immigration restrictions make it harder to recruit lab workers; he’s proposed dramatic cuts to the NIH and Centers for Disease Control, and his decision to pull U.S. funding from the World Health Organization will hurt the search for the COVID cure America needs. These are real setbacks, not only to science, but to the people suffering from such diseases.

“Most people don’t think about biomedical research day to day. It’s going on in the background, and they assume that if they ever need it, it will be there for them,” Morrison notes. A “miracle cure,” as Trump said, “coming down from God.” But thanks to him, future Americans won’t be so blessed.

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published this page in News and Politics 2020-10-22 02:56:42 -0700