Fetal Tissue Research

Fetal tissue research plays a crucial role in scientists’ efforts to combat and cure some of our most devastating diseases, including Alzheimer’s, ALS, diabetes and Parkinson’s.

This research also helps us understand how to support healthy pregnancies, successful births and healthy babies.

How have scientists at Pitt used fetal tissue in their research?

Scientists at Pitt have used fetal tissue to better understand the efficacy and safety of certain treatments for HIV, AIDS and cancer. As another example, by learning how the placenta protects the fetus against viral infections, researchers are able to keep more mothers and their babies healthy and safe.

How does Pitt obtain fetal tissue?

Tissue is obtained from repositories called tissue banks. The Pitt Biospecimen Core, which provides central support for Pitt research programs, receives all fetal tissues from UPMC Magee-Womens Hospital.

In a clinical setting, conversations about donating fetal tissue for scientific research can only occur after a patient has decided to terminate a pregnancy. This process is set by federal law, which requires a patient’s written consent for a donation of this kind.

How is fetal tissue research regulated?

Studies using fetal tissue are among the most tightly regulated in research today. Robust safeguards are in place to ensure that consent is obtained, clinical and research functions are separated, and financial gain is prohibited. The University of Pittsburgh—and all academic institutions engaged in this work—must comply with federal and state regulations. In fact, PA is home to some of the strictest rules in the nation.

Using Every Tool Available

When faced with a devastating illness or injury, doctors and researchers use every tool available to find treatments and search for cures. That’s just one reason why, in 2020, the top-10 NIH-funded institutions—Pitt included—received NIH grants for fetal tissue research.

To show how the many subsets of human cells and tissue research come together, let’s take a look at Parkinson’s disease:

Scientists have studied induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells in adult donors who have Parkinson’s disease as well as adult donors who do not have Parkinson’s disease. Such studies enable researchers to better understand the disease and learn what goes wrong in the neurons of those affected.  

  • In the 1980s, scientists showed that transplants involving dopamine-producing cells from fetal tissue were effective in delaying the onset of Parkinson’s disease. Within the last decade, studies have begun using dopamine-producing iPS cells in human clinical trials for the first time.
  • Studies have also utilized the brains of deceased Parkinson’s disease patients who chose to donate their brains for research. Pitt’s Brain Institute Brain Bank is one institution that collects these donations so that scientists around the country can better understand, treat and—perhaps one day—cure neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s disease.
  • All medications approved to treat Parkinson’s disease symptoms were tested on human cells at some point in their development.

Facts About Fetal Tissue Research

FACT: America’s top biomedical research institutions utilize fetal tissue for certain types of research. In 2020, the top-10 NIH-funded institutions—the University of Pittsburgh included—received NIH grants for projects that utilize fetal tissue research.

FACT: Research utilizing fetal tissue research plays a vital role in making new discoveries and developing products for protecting and promoting human health. In fact, no FDA-approved medication or treatment available today has been approved for use without first originating from discoveries made utilizing human cells or tissue. 

FACT: Most people have already benefited from research utilizing fetal cell and tissue —they just might not know it. Scientists have used fetal cell lines to develop and test lifesaving vaccines, including those that protect against COVID-19, polio, chickenpox, shingles, measles, rubella, rabies and hepatitis A. They have used fetal tissues and fetal cell lines to better understand how to support a healthy pregnancy and healthy babies, and to develop a number of medications—now available—for treating cancer, diabetes, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, cystic fibrosis, hemophilia and more.

FACT: Research involving fetal tissue is tightly regulated. Researchers must follow strict regulatory requirements at both the state and federal level. In fact, Pennsylvania’s General Assembly has already enacted some of the nation’s strictest state-level limitations on fetal tissue research.

FACT: Fetal cell and tissue research isn’t new. Human cell lines, derived from fetal tissues, have been immortalized such that they reproduce indefinitely and can be used again and again in research. In fact, scientists still use the WI-38 and MRC-5 immortalized fetal cell lines, derived from fetal tissues obtained in Sweden in 1962 and the United Kingdom in 1966. These cell lines contributed to the development of vaccines for polio, rubella and other diseases that have saved millions of lives. 

FACT: At present, for certain types of experiments studying mechanisms that are unique to human diseases, there is no substitute for human fetal tissue cells. These cells grow readily and adapt to laboratory environments, allowing researchers to study basic human biology and normal human development in a way that cannot be replicated with adult tissue.

FACT: There are no monetary gains—only scientific gains—tied to collecting fetal cells and tissue for research. The NIH and Pennsylvania law expressly forbid entities from profiting off the collection, cataloging, storage and transfer of fetal tissue donations.

FACT: Voluntary donation and informed consent is required by law for fetal tissue to be collected for and provided to researchers. As with all human tissue research, responsible adults must consent to donate—whether the tissue originates from themselves, their children or an unborn fetus.

FACT: The voluntary donation of fetal tissue is completely independent of research utilizing previously collected fetal tissue. Research teams have no role in obtaining consent to donate tissue.

FACT: Stopping fetal tissue research would be detrimental to:   

Patients: Babies, kids and adults would be deprived of forthcoming treatments and discoveries, many of which will be lifesaving. We will be unable to find new treatments for nearly 6000 human diseases for which there are no treatments available today.

Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania’s premiere biomedical research institutions would see their capacity to innovate shrink, as researchers and research funding left for institutions in other states.

America: The nation’s workforce would fall behind the rest of the world in developing cutting edge medical treatments and advancements. We will no longer be the first in the world to gain access to new therapies that would have otherwise been developed here in the United States.

Further reading