The Trump administration is pushing back on a Washington Post story that the federal government is moving to eliminate funding for a major UCSF research lab that tests new HIV treatments using fetal tissue.
The Post, citing anonymous sources outside the federal government, reported that the administration was ending the seven-year contract and that the decision was coming from the “highest levels.” That information reportedly came from an official with the National Institutes of Health.
"Unfortunately, the Washington Post chose to report assertions that are completely false," said Caitlin Oakley, spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services.
The HHS statement says no decision has been made about whether to extend or cancel the lab’s $2 million NIH contract. It said the story is based on “anonymous sources providing inaccurate information.”
However, the statement does confirm the UCSF contract is being audited for its compliance with regulations governing fetal tissue, which is mostly obtained from abortions.
The contract is set to expire today, and according to the Post, the NIH now says the contract would continue for 90 days while the review is underway.
The bottom line is that the laboratory's future is “very much in limbo,” according to Amy Goldstein, the Post’s national health care policy writer. She describes the lab as being central to nearly all early testing of HIV therapies approved by the Food and Drug Administration since the 1990s.
In September, HHS announced a broad audit of all acquisitions involving fetal tissue to ensure all laws and regulations are being followed.
This comes amid stepped-up efforts by social conservatives to get the administration to end government support of fetal tissue research.
Goldstein describes the UCSF lab as a “central testing platform for assessing in animals the effectiveness and safety of chemical compounds” that seem promising for HIV treatments.
The mice are implanted with small amounts of fetal tissue from the thymus glands. The thymus is critical because it produce T-cells — which become depleted in people and mice infected with HIV.
Eventually, the mice grow the equivalent of a human thymus, which researchers can use to test drugs to see which are effective and safe. Goldstein reports that this is the only lab doing this work under an NIH grant — and this grant is the sole source of funding for the lab.
In a statement, UCSF would not comment on the Post’s story, but the UC Office of the President called fetal tissue “vital to finding treatment and cures for a wide variety of adult and childhood diseases and medical conditions.”
Fetal tissue research has long been controversial. Federal funding of this type of research was banned in the 1980s.
The tissue comes from women who have had elective abortions. Opponents of this research argue the use of fetal tissue increases the rate of abortions in the country. Researchers counter that there is no evidence to back up that claim, according to Goldstein.