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University Resists Pressure from GOP Congressman to Halt Research on Fetal Tissue

Jason Salzman

Rep. Doug Lamborn asked the University of Colorado Denver to provide details about the “body parts” or "aborted fetal tissue" used in all research funded by the National Institutes of Health at the university.

See more of our coverage on the effects of the misleading Center for Medical Progress videos here.

Resisting pressure from a Colorado Springs Republican congressman, the University of Colorado’s medical school and Denver campus will not ban the use of fetal tissue from two suppliers, nor will they halt any research using fetal tissue, according to the medical school’s vice chancellor for research.

Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colorado Springs) asked the University of Colorado Denver in an August 27 letter to provide details about the “body parts” or “aborted fetal tissue” used in all research funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and, specifically, in a research project led by professor of neurology and ophthalmology Dr. Jeffrey Bennett.

Lamborn’s letter asks the university to halt such research, if it is occurring.

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In a letter responding to Lamborn, Richard Traystman, vice chancellor for research at the University of Colorado Medical School, wrote that all university research utilizing fetal tissue or cells is compliant with state and federal laws.

Asked by Rewire if he’d stop such research, Traystman said, “Absolutely not. It’s not acceptable to stop research using cells from fetal tissues. In my letter, I gave examples of where these sorts of fetal cells are used in research on certain diseases. They are very often used in research on diseases of the central nervous system, the brain, the spinal cord, a variety of diseases that involve brain abnormalities and diseases, like Parkinson’s disease, for example. They are also used in research on the heart and cardiac tissue and to create vaccines. I could go on.”

“We do very little human fetal tissue work here, and the human fetal tissue is obtained in 99 percent of the cases from the NIH cell bank,” Traystman added.

Traystman wrote to Lamborn that Bennett uses “fully differentiated” human fetal cells, obtained with proper consent from the donor and abiding by all regulations.

“The Bennett laboratory is dedicated to the neuro-immunological disorders,” Traystman wrote. “One of these disorders, neuromyelitis optica (NMO), is a devastating disorder of the central nervous system that primarily affects the central nerve and spinal cord. NMO causes permanent disability such as vision loss, and blindness in the majority of individuals. There is no cure, and there is no approved treatment for NMO. Dr. Bennett is an expert in NMO.”

In his letter to the University of Colorado Denver, Lamborn expressed concern that the university was purchasing fetal tissue from StemExpress or Advanced Bioscience Resources (ABR), two fetal tissue suppliers under attack by an anti-choice front group known as the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) for obtaining tissue from Planned Parenthood.

By doing so, the university may be “participating in the purchase and trafficking of aborted fetal tissue,” Lamborn alleged.

Traystman wrote to Lamborn that the University could find no “record of fetal purchases, or anything else for that matter, from StemExpress or ABR, Inc.”

Asked if he’d purchase fetal tissue from those suppliers now, Traystman told Rewire, “At this moment we’re not [using those companies], but we will if we need to. We do have other sources, as I’ve said, but those are the two major companies that many investigators order from.”

The response from the University of Colorado campuses differs from that of Colorado State University in Fort Collins.

Last month, under pressure from Lamborn, Colorado State University President Tony Frank stopped the “acquisition of fetal tissue from StemExpress or other vendors implicated in the Planned Parenthood investigation pending the outcome of the Congressional investigation,” and stated that “all efforts should be made to seek alternatives to aborted fetal tissue.”

Congressional committees have launched investigations into Planned Parenthood after heavily edited videos showed executives with the reproductive health organization discussing donation of fetal tissue. There has been no evidence of wrongdoing by Planned Parenthood in a bevy of GOP-launched investigations into the health-care organization.

Traystman emphasized that he would not tolerate any wrongdoing in obtaining fetal tissue.

“To be able to do these kinds of studies with these cells, tissues, that come from humans, you must go through the Institutional Review Board process, get consent, and follow all the rules and regulations related to human consent forms. Certainly at our institution, and at all institutions that I know, you shouldn’t be able to bypass that rule,” he said.

“That Institutional Review Board reviews all research that is ongoing or even beginning to take place in humans, and every person who is using any tissue from any human or using blood or whatever else must get approval from that patient before you can take any samples from that patient,” explained Traystman.

“It’s unfortunate that Rep. Lamborn is continuing to be part of a witch hunt attacking critical, lifesaving medical research based on falsehoods and anti-women’s health politics,” Karen Middleton, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado, said in an email to Rewire.

“Has Representative Lamborn or anyone in his family gotten a polio or MMR vaccine?” Middleton continued. “If so, they benefited from the type of critical medical research he’s now trying to threaten. Fetal tissue research has been done since the 1930s, contributed to the development of the polio vaccine in 1954, and has been federally-funded since 1993 when both Colorado Senators Hank Brown and Ben Campbell voted for it. It continues to be part of critical medical research on Parkinson’s, HIV/AIDS and other serious illnesses.”

The New York Times cited Lamborn’s attacks on Colorado Universities in a September 11 editorial summarizing efforts by anti-choice activists to curtail research using fetal-tissue research. The editorial, titled “Save Fetal Tissue Research, Save Lives,” called fetal tissue a “precious medical resource.”

“It should be exploited for the many medical benefits it can provide,” the Times wrote, “not banned as part of a vicious, continuing assault on Planned Parenthood and the health services it provides to millions of women a year.”

Lamborn, whose office did not return a call for comment, has introduced legislation, called the “End Trafficking of the Terminated Unborn Act,” to ban research using fetal tissue obtained from “induced abortions.”

“The buying and selling of aborted babies’ body parts raises serious legal and ethical concerns,” Lamborn said in his August 27 letter. “It is a practice many Coloradans find deeply disturbing and should have no place at a publicly funded university.”

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