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Nov. 15 — The leader of the House fetal tissue investigations panel has joined Donald Trump’s transition team—a move that may provide a window into the president-elect’s research policies.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) was one of several House Republicans selected by the Trump administration to work on health-related issues. While chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Select Investigative Panel , her investigations have included subpoenas, drawing concern from research groups about possible harassment of scientists using fetal tissue. After Republicans voted to begin contempt of Congress proceedings against a human tissue supplier, Democrats walked out of a hearing in September.
Blackburn also has supported research initiatives such as the House Energy and Commerce’s 21st Century Cures bill (H.R. 6) to spur new medical treatments; her appointment to Trump’s team may provide some insight on a president-elect who has been otherwise mum about medical research.
“One of the things that makes this so much more unusual than many other types of transitions is there has been virtually no statement at any point in time by the president-elect about research,” Heather H. Pierce of the Association of American Medical Colleges said at the Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research conference Nov. 14 in Anaheim, Calif.
Advancing research and development does appear on a list of health priorities on the transition team’s website, but almost all the discussions about Trump and health care have focused on repealing or reforming the Affordable Care Act.
David Prentice, vice president and research director for the Charlotte Lozier Institute, an arm of the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, said it’s too early to tell whether research policies from the Trump administration will have a more conservative tilt.
“There’s been very little so far in terms of detail out of the Trump-Pence team other than they are interested in innovation and really getting patient-centered, medical research out there,” he told Bloomberg BNA in a Nov. 15 interview. “There’s a very bright future out there for research.”
Trump’s appointment of Blackburn comes days after he put Vice President-elect Mike Pence in charge of the transition. University of Wisconsin bioethicist R. Alta Charo told Bloomberg BNA Pence signed into law a bill “making it impossible to get the tissue remaining after legal abortions for research” when he was governor of Indiana. That bill, H.B. 1337, generally restricts abortion laws, but there is language that means a “person who intentionally acquires, receives, sells, or transfers fetal tissue commits unlawful transfer of fetal tissue,” making them guilty of a felony.
The National Institutes of Health doesn’t prohibit research using fetal tissues but it’s “highly regulated,” according to its website.
“I would not be surprised at all to see (a) an executive order that halts NIH funding for work with this tissue and (b) a signal to Congress that there’d be little resistance to federal legislation making it difficult or impossible to obtain or use the tissue,” Charo said in a Nov. 14 e-mail to Bloomberg BNA.
Both Charo and Prentice noted President Ronald Reagan issued a moratorium on using federal funding for fetal tissue research, which President Bill Clinton overturned. But while Charo supports this field of research--she told the Select Investigative Panel fetal tissue research is both ethical and contributes to lifesaving research in testimony in March—Prentice opposes it. He said he would like to see that money go toward adult stem cell research.
It is unclear what role, if any, Blackburn would have in Trump's administration. About her appointment, she said in a statement, “It is an honor to be asked to serve on the Executive Committee for the Trump Transition. When VP elect Mike Pence was in Congress, I had the opportunity to work with him and look forward to again working with him in this role.”
Pence spent more than two decades in the House and led the 2005 effort to block embryonic stem cell legislation. That bill, which would have allowed discarded embryos to be used for federally funded research, passed twice, but President George W. Bush vetoed them in 2005 and 2007.
The nation’s policies on embryonic stem cell research are running on executive orders, specifically the 2009 order issued by President Barack Obama, which overturned Bush’s ban on federal funding for newer embryonic stem cell lines.
Charo, who led the National Academies committee that issued guidelines for stem cell research, in a Nov. 10 e-mail to Bloomberg BNA noted Pence’s record of opposing federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, “even if it has no effect on the number of embryos discarded after reproductive efforts following” in vitro fertilization.
“So much depends on the input that Pence will have on the priority of actions to be taken,” Charo said. “Funding issues are more vulnerable, as they often can be handled by executive order.”
Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) was the top Democrat on that 2005 embryonic stem cell bill. She is now the top Democrat on 21st Century Cures.
In a Nov. 15 statement to Bloomberg BNA, DeGette described the fetal tissue panel as a “witch hunt” and said it would be irresponsible to revive the panel in the next Congress.
“The panel should have been dismantled long ago, before it endangered so many lives by recklessly releasing the names and personal contact information of health care workers, spreading inflammatory rhetoric that can serve to stoke violence, and halting progress on research that would likely lead to treatment and cures for a variety of illnesses,” she said.
Pierce, who is the AAMC’s senior director of science policy and regulatory counsel for scientific affairs, said because Trump has never served in Congress nor has he worked with lawmakers, there’s uncertainty in how the president-elect will approach both legislation and regulation.
The transition comes amid the effort to overhaul the human subject protection regulations, known as the Common Rule (45 C.F.R. 46). The Obama administration has indicated it wants to push a final rule out before the end of his term, which the rule’s chief administrator, Jerry Menikoff, reiterated at the conference in Anaheim.
But Pierce said during a separate session at the conference that any current regulatory work, including the proposed changes to the Common Rule, “may stop entirely for a time until the principles are really put forth” by the Trump administration.
To contact the reporter on this story: Jeannie Baumann in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Randy Kubetin at RKubetin@bna.com
More information on the House Select Panel is available at https://energycommerce.house.gov/select-investigative-panel.
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