Fetal Tissue Research
Fetal tissue has been a key tool in biomedical research in the United States since the 1930s, driving medical innovation that has had an overwhelmingly positive effect on human health.
Like embryonic stem cells, cells derived from fetal tissue can more easily differentiate into other cell types and rapidly multiply and regenerate. These characteristics allow cells from fetal tissue to be cultured in the laboratory, creating new cell lines critical to the development and evaluation of pharmaceuticals, vaccines, and other life-saving advances.
For example, fetal tissue was pivotal to the development of the polio vaccine, a medical achievement that saved potentially millions of lives. The role of fetal tissue research in this accomplishment was further recognized in 1954 when Drs. John Enders, Thomas Weller, and Frederick Robbins received the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their success in culturing the virus that causes polio in various human tissues, including fetal kidney cells.
Beyond vaccine development, fetal tissue has been instrumental in improving our understanding of human development and our ability to diagnose many viral infections and inherited diseases. Fetal tissue has also been a successful tool in transplantation, as these tissues lack the cell markers that increase the risk of transplant rejection. In adult cell types that do not regenerate after birth, such as brain cells, fetal tissue cells have been shown to readily grow once introduced. This has bolstered the potential of fetal tissue cells in the treatment of debilitating neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, ALS, and Alzheimer’s. Evidence suggests that other diseases, including type I diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, HIV/AIDS, and others, could also be targets for fetal tissue transplantation therapies.
Despite the scientific and medical benefits of fetal tissue research, recent efforts have sought to reduce federal funding for such research. In 2019, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced that all intramural research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) involving fetal tissue would be discontinued and that while no current extramural research projects funded by the NIH would be impacted, any new projects involving fetal tissue would be subject to additional review by an Ethics Advisory Board. When this board convened in late 2020 to review new proposals, only one of the 14 proposals was granted approval for funding. In April 2021, it was announced that this 2019 policy would be changed and that another Ethics Advisory Board would not be convened. Intramural research at NIH involving fetal tissue was also allowed to resume.
To view current NIH grant policy for research involving fetal tissue, click here.
To view legislation in the 117th Congress relevant to fetal tissue research, click here.
Congressional Research Services. Human Fetal Tissue Research: Frequently Asked Questions. 2019.
Gelber et al. Fetal tissue research: an ongoing story of professionally responsible success. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. 2015.
Wadman, M. The truth about fetal tissue research. Nature. 2015.