University still under fire for fetal research

A new bill would create a center for handling fetal tissue at the University.

Youssef Rddad

After the University of Minnesota flip-flopped last year and admitted it did indeed use fetal tissue in research, lawmakers are still unsatisfied with the school’s response and later apologies.
 
 
University officials said when legislators and journalists asked about fetal tissue last summer, inquiries weren’t specific to research, causing the miscommunication. 
 
 
In October, Alpha News, a conservative-leaning news website, discovered in a public records request that University researchers had acquired fetal tissue.
 
 
Last Tuesday, University officials apologized to lawmakers during a House committee meeting for their previous denial that fetal tissue research was taking place. 
 
 
“We now have processes in place so that we know exactly where this material is [and] who’s using it, but we did not have that before.” President Eric Kaler said during the meeting. 
 
 
In response, House members drafted a bill that would give the University $1 million to fund a fetal tissue research center by the 2017 fiscal year. The center would oversee all research activities involving fetal tissue research and ensure legal and ethical compliance in acquiring and disposing the tissue. 
 
 
Lawmakers say they want the University to have a centralized facility for this type of research in order to guarantee oversight.
 
 
During the meeting, the bill’s co-author Rep. Abigail Whelan, R-Anoka, called it a fair compromise for the University to continue research, after University leaders stressed its importance for treating Parkinson’s, HIV and other diseases. 
 
 
The University has also taken additional steps to address critics’ concerns, including updating its policy for handling and disposing of fetal tissue. 
 
 
Federal statutes allow stem cell donations, but the Anatomical Gift Act allows only donations for natural causes, such as stillbirths or a fetus that dies in utero. 
 
 
Induced abortions, however, are not considered natural causes, and aborted fetuses cannot be donated for research in Minnesota. But federal laws allow for such donations as long as the recipient isn’t profiteering from the tissue, outside of charging for transportation, processing and shipping.
 
 
Under the bill, the University would only be able to use tissue acquired due to a miscarriage or similar conditions that are involuntary.  
 
 
Lawmakers say the University likely violated state law in the disposal of fetal tissue, which have specific disposal guidelines. 
 
 
Currently, eight researchers use fetal tissue for research at the University.
 
 
Regent Michael Hsu said though he takes no position on the surrounding political or moral debate, he worries how the University’s handling of the incident may affect future funding for research. 
 
 
“I’m a little bit disappointed that it got to be as big of deal as it did,” he said. “We could have handled it better early on.”
 
 
The University has not taken a position on the bill, said Dan Gilchrist, a spokesman for the Office of the Vice President for Research.
 
 
He added that the University is open to working with lawmakers.
 
 
“It certainly is not a case where we’re trying to not be transparent,” he said. “It certainly wasn’t our intention to mislead.”