NIH-scientists are told to stop buying fetal tissue for research, highlighting importance of CIRM’s voter-created independence


National Institutes of Health

The news that President Trump’s administration has told scientists employed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that they can’t buy any new human fetal tissue for research has left many scientists frustrated and worried.

The news has also highlighted the reason why voters created CIRM in the first place and the importance of having an independent source of funding for potentially life-saving research such as this.

The Trump administration imposed the suspension of all new acquisitions saying it wants to review all fetal tissue research funded by the federal government. The impact was felt immediately.

In an article on, Warner Greene, director of the Center for HIV Cure Research at the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco, said the decision derailed collaboration between his lab and one at Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Hamilton, Montana. The research focused on an antibody that previous studies showed might prevent HIV from establishing reservoirs in the human body.

“We were all poised to go and then the bombshell was dropped. The decision completely knocked our collaboration off the rails. We were devastated.”

Right now, it’s not clear if the “halt” is temporary or permanent, or if it will ultimately be expanded beyond scientists employed by the NIH to all scientists funded by the NIH who use fetal tissue.

In 2001, President George W. Bush’s decision to impose restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research helped generate support for Proposition 71, the voter-approved initiation that created CIRM. People felt that stem cell research had potential to develop treatments and cures for deadly diseases and that if the federal government wasn’t going to support it then California would.

CIRM Board member, and Patient Advocate for HIV/AIDS, Jeff Sheehy says the current actions could have wide-reaching impact.

“While the initial focus of the emerging ban on the use of fetal tissue has been on projects related to HIV, this action undermines a spectrum of vital research initiatives that seek to cure multiple life-threatening diseases and conditions.  Many regenerative medicine cell-based or gene therapies require pre-clinical safety studies in humanized mice created with fetal tissue.  These mice effectively have human immune systems, which allows researchers to examine the effects of products on the immune system. Work to prevent and treat infectious diseases, including vaccine efforts, require this animal model to do initial testing. Development of vaccines to respond to actual threats requires use of this animal model.  This action could have damaging effects on the health of Americans.”


The Spanish Inquisition and a tale of two stem cell agencies


Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition sketch: Photo courtesy Daily Mail UK

It’s not often an article on stem cell research brings the old, but still much loved, British comedy series Monty Python into the discussion but a new study in the journal Cell Stem Cell does just that, comparing the impact of CIRM and the UK’s Regenerative Medicine Platform (UKRMP).

The article, written by Fiona Watt of King’s College London and Stanford’s Irv Weissman (a CIRM grantee – you can see his impressive research record here) looks at CIRM and UKRMP’s success in translating stem cell research into clinical applications in people.

It begins by saying that in research, as in real estate, location is key:

“One thing that is heavily influenced by location, however, is our source of funding. This in turn depends on the political climate of the country in which we work, as exemplified by research on stem cells.”

And, as Weissman and Watt note, political climate can have a big impact on that funding. CIRM was created by the voters of California in 2004, largely in response to President George W. Bush’s restrictions on the use of federal funds for embryonic stem cell research. UKRMP, in contrast was created by the UK government in 2013 and designed to help strengthen the UK’s translational research sector. CIRM was given $3 billion to do its work. UKRMP has approximately $38 million.

Inevitably the two agencies took very different approaches to funding, shaped in part by the circumstances of their birth – one as a largely independent state agency, the other created as a tool of national government.

CIRM, by virtue of its much larger funding was able to create world-class research facilities, attract top scientists to California and train a whole new generation of scientists. It has also been able to help some of the most promising projects get into clinical trials. UKRMP has used its more limited funding to create research hubs, focusing on areas such as cell behavior, differentiation and manufacturing, and safety and effectiveness. Those hubs are encouraged to work collaboratively, sharing their expertise and best practices.

Weissman and Watt touch on the problems both agencies ran into, including the difficulty of moving even the best research out of the lab and into clinical trials:

“Although CIRM has moved over 20 projects into clinical trials most are a long way from becoming standard therapies. This is not unexpected, as the interval between discovery and FDA approved therapeutic via clinical trials is in excess of 10 years minimum.”


And here is where Monty Python enters the picture. The authors quote one of the most famous lines from the series: “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition – because our chief weapon is surprise.”

They use that to highlight the surprises and uncertainty that stem cell research has gone through in the more than ten years since CIRM was created. They point out that a whole category of cells, induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, didn’t exist until 2006; and that few would have predicted the use of gene/stem cell therapy combinations. The recent development of the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technology shows the field is progressing at a rate and in directions that are hard to predict; a reminder that that researchers and funding agencies should continue to expect the unexpected.

With two such different agencies the authors wisely resist the temptation to make any direct comparisons as to their success but instead conclude:

“…both CIRM and UKRMP have similar goals but different routes (and funding) to achieving them. Connecting people to work together to move regenerative medicine into the clinic is an over-arching objective and one that, we hope, will benefit patients regardless of where they live.”