Metro Weekly

Trump suspends access to materials for research into HIV cure

HHS has launched an audit into the use of fetal tissue, an essential component in researching drugs and treatments to combat HIV

HIV virus, Credit: C. Goldsmith Content Providers: CDC/ C. Goldsmith, P. Feorino, E. L. Palmer, W. R. McManus

Donald Trump’s administration has quietly suspended a study that was conducting research into a possible HIV cure.

As reported by Science magazine, in September the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) barred the National Institute of Health (NIH) from accessing fetal tissue for research.

The blockade came without any public announcement, and was reportedly part of a federal review of all research conducted by the government that utilized fetal tissue. The tissue itself is legal to use, but is acquired from elective abortions — a practice strongly opposed by anti-abortion activists, Trump administration officials, and Trump himself.

Fetal tissue was being utilized by researchers working for NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), as part of a study into how HIV takes hold in the body.

NIAID’s Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML) in Montana was using the tissue to create mice with immune systems that behave like a human’s, which plays a key role in testing and researching antibodies and drugs to treat and combat HIV. RML used the mice to investigate the potential of a new antibody to prevent HIV from creating “reservoirs” of the virus in the body.

RML acquired its tissue from a laboratory in California for “several years,” according to Science, but in September the lab was informed that no more tissue could be ordered.

“[HHS] has directed me to discontinue procuring fetal tissue,” an RML researcher wrote in an email obtained by Science. “I think that they are the only provider of fetal tissue for scientists in the nation who don’t have direct access to aborted fetal tissue. This effectively stops all of our research to discover a cure for HIV.”

An NIH spokesperson confirmed that the agency had told scientists to “pause procurements of fetal tissue,” pending a review by HHS.

An NIAID spokesperson said: “We have instituted a pause of further procurements pending the audit/review that HHS is undertaking.”

Warner Greene, an HIV researcher and director of the Gladstone Center for HIV Cure Research in San Franciscio, Calif. — which was collaborating with the NIH — said that news of the block on fetal tissue was a “bombshell.”

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

Thomas Packard, a postdoctoral student working under Greene, called it a “travesty for the outlook for HIV research.”

“Mice made with human fetal tissue are critical to moving from discoveries in the lab to clinical treatments,” he told Science. “Blocking this significantly hurts our chances of finding an HIV cure.”

In a statement to Gay Star News, a spokesperson for HHS said that there was a pause on fetal tissue procurement, pending an audit, but did not state whether it would be permanently blocked from being acquired by federal researchers.

“In September, HHS issued a statement announcing an audit would be conducted of all acquisitions involving human fetal tissue to ensure conformity with procurement and human fetal tissue research laws and regulations,” the spokesperson said. “In addition, HHS has initiated a comprehensive review of all research involving fetal tissue to ensure consistency with statutes and regulations governing such research, and to ensure the adequacy of procedures and oversight of this research in light of the serious considerations involved.”

It’s not the first time that Trump’s administration has crossed paths with HIV research and efforts to end America’s HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Last year, Trump ended 2017 by firing the entire Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, six months after six members of the council resigned in protest over the administration allegedly pursuing policies that would harm people living with HIV.

“As advocates for people living with HIV, we have dedicated our lives to combating this disease and no longer feel we can do so effectively within the confines of an advisory body to a president who simply does not care,” the six resignees wrote in an open letter.

Trump was also heavily criticized for his administration’s HIV strategy after releasing a statement recognizing National HIV Testing Day in 2017 that failed to even mention LGBTQ people.

Rhuaridh Marr is Metro Weekly's managing editor. He can be reached at rmarr@metroweekly.com.

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