Pitt hires independent party to review fetal tissue research practices


Pitt has hired an outside law firm to do an independent review of its fetal tissue research processes and practices, which have come under increased fire lately in conservative circles.

The University has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing in its research practices and said fetal tissue research is “subject to robust internal controls and highly regulated at the state and federal level.” 

The Washington, D.C., law firm Hyman, Phelps & McNamara is conducting the review and will present its findings to the University’s senior leadership when it is concluded. The University’s statement said the firm has extensive experience with health care, research and regulatory law. 

In a statement, the University said it has taken this “proactive step to ensure that it is positioned to continue leading the way — scientifically, legally and ethically — in practicing and advancing lifesaving research.”

A Pitt spokesman said that all National Institute of Health grant awards and reporting processes entail “rigorous and detailed requirements and documentation for the use of fetal tissue. Pitt also has a robust compliance regime in place to continually monitor and evaluate research practices and compliance with all federal and state requirements and laws. This includes several oversight committees, all of which include external community members. … Pitt also regularly reviews research projects for compliance purposes.”

Fetal tissues have long been used to study diseases. In 2020, the top-10 NIH-funded institutions — which includes Pitt — received NIH grants for projects that utilize fetal tissue research.

Scientists have used fetal cell lines to develop and test several vaccines, including those for COVID-19, polio, chickenpox, shingles, measles, rubella and rabies. Anti-abortion advocates oppose fetal tissue research because the tissue primarily comes from abortions. Scientists say that for certain types of experiments, there is no substitute for human fetal tissue cells.

By law, all fetal tissue donations are voluntary and informed consent is required for fetal tissue to be collected for and provided to researchers, who are not involved in collecting the tissue. The NIH and Pennsylvania law expressly forbid entities from profiting off the collection, cataloging, storage and transfer of fetal tissue donations.

Several Republican state lawmakers have raised concerns about fetal tissue research, most recently at a state House health committee hearing in May.

Rep. Natalie Mihalek (R-Upper St. Clair), who is a Pitt alum and commonwealth appointee to the University’s Board of Trustees, said in a statement that she “concurred with the university’s leadership that the best path forward was an open and transparent review by an independent third party.”

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at suejones@pitt.edu.


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