Noted stem cell researcher and former chair of the ASCB Public Policy Committee Larry Goldstein told a politically charged
congressional subcommittee hearing on March 3 that, “Fetal tissue and cells that would otherwise be discarded play a vital role in modern cutting-edge medical research. These fetal tissues and cells cannot be replaced by embryonic stem cells, reprogrammed stem cells, or adult stem cells.”
Goldstein, a professor at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), was testifying before the House Selective Investigative Panel on Infant Lives at a hearing entitled “Bioethics and Fetal Tissue.” The subcommittee is a part of the House Energy & Commerce Committee and was formed in the wake of last summer’s Planned Parenthood videos controversy. The stated goal of the hearing was to focus on ethical issues of fetal tissue donation, transfer of fetal tissues, and the use of fetal tissue in biomedical research. The panel was sharply divided between the Republican majority, who see the Planned Parenthood controversy as a call for further restrictions on the transfer of tissue and cells recovered from abortions, and the Democratic minority, who see such measures as potentially crippling to U.S. biomedical research.
The hearing started off with fireworks as the Democratic members accused the committee chair, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), and her staff of trying to intimidate scientists by publishing the names of researchers and graduate students who work with fetal cells and tissues. The questioning of witnesses by representatives from both sides of the aisle was acerbic.
The Essential Role of Fetal Cells
Goldstein, who spoke on behalf of the ASCB, the International Society for Stem Cell Research, and the Coalition for the Life Sciences, was one of two witnesses called by the Democratic minority against four called by the Republican majority.
In his testimony, Goldstein cited three examples from his current research where fetal cells and tissues have been essential, including work on Alzheimer’s disease, spinal cord repair, and kidney regeneration. “In my own lab, we use Alzheimer’s disease cells to understand why brain cells with Alzheimer’s disease are abnormal and to try to develop drugs,” Goldstein explained. “We use fetal astrocytes, which are vital to these research investigations. These fetal astrocytes provide growth factors that keep nerve cells healthy and other factors that are not yet defined that help the neurons establish connections and maintain long-term growth and viability. Although we can make cells that are similar to astrocytes from stem cells, the fetal astrocytes are the ‘gold standard’ to which we compare astrocytes made from stem cells, which we cannot use yet to replace the fetal astrocytes because they are not identical in capacity to the best of our current knowledge.” (The complete text of Goldstein’s testimony can be found at http://bit.ly/1LXtNiv.)
Where Were the Scientists?
Goldstein appeared as one of the Democrats’ two witnesses, along with Professor Alta Charo, a lawyer and bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin. Of the six witnesses, Goldstein was the only basic cellular and clinical researcher. In his opening statement, Goldstein highlighted his 40-year scientific career and his involvement in stem cell research into Alzheimer’s disease, spinal cord injury, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and kidney and liver disease.
In her questioning, Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) underlined Goldstein’s scientific experience. “Dr. Goldstein, you’re an actual cell-based researcher and you run a lab, so I’m going to talk to you since of all the six witnesses we’ve had today you seem to be the only one with experience to be able to talk about fetal tissue research and other types of cell-based research.”
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) also pointed out that Goldstein was the only cell scientist testifying. “This hearing is about the use of fetal tissue in a scientific setting, so it’s a little confusing to me as to why this panel, which should be comprised of scientists, doesn’t have a whole panel of scientists.”
Fetal Tissue and Zika Virus
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) focused on the recent outbreak of Zika virus and its implications, asking Goldstein, “How are we expected to learn and understand the implications of the Zika virus without studying the fetal tissue?”
“I think if you want to understand the Zika virus, the most efficient place to start is with the fetal tissue that is infected. That just seems self-evident to me,” Goldstein replied.
“Would not having fetal tissue as a resource in this study potentially delay finding a cure?” Schakowsky asked.
“It would absolutely delay it. I think you have to go to the source if you want to understand what’s going wrong,” Goldstein said.
Responding to sharp questioning from the majority members, Goldstein reiterated his belief that eliminating fetal tissue research would have a “chilling effect” on the biomedical research community. In perhaps the most telling interaction of the day, Rep. Sean Duffy (R-WI) asked Goldstein if he thought Congress should continue its investigation into fetal tissue for research. “No, I don’t,” Goldstein replied, “I honestly think that Congress has better things to do with its time.”
*An earlier version of this Article appeared in the ASCB Post
About the Author:
Tommy Mattocks is the new Public Policy Coordinator for ASCB. He previously worked in the U.S. Senate as the Press intern for Senator Maria Cantwell (D-CA), and Senator Tom Carper (D-DE).