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Trump administration cuts funding for fetal tissue research

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Washington (AFP)

The Trump administration on Wednesday discontinued a multi-million-dollar research contract with a university involving the use of fetal tissue to test new HIV treatments, arguing it was "promoting the dignity of human life."

The use of fetal tissue is supported by many scientists who say it is essential for cutting-edge research and has already led to numerous breakthroughs including the polio, rubella and rabies vaccines.

But it is sharply criticized by anti-abortion activists who brand such research "immoral" and say it might encourage more people to terminate their pregnancies, and that researchers should instead focus on alternatives such as stem cells harvested from adults or umbilical cords.

The administration's decision comes as several conservative-leaning US states have adopted extremely restrictive laws on abortion in the hope that the Supreme Court will opt to revisit a landmark 1973 ruling establishing abortion rights nationwide.

President Donald Trump has declared himself "strongly Pro-Life" as he seeks to rally his conservative base ahead of his re-election bid in 2020.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced it was ending a $2 million a year contract with the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) for research that began in 2013 and involves tissue from elective abortions.

"Promoting the dignity of human life from conception to natural death is one of the very top priorities of President Trump's administration," the department said in a statement.

It said it had been keeping the UCSF contract alive through 90-day extensions since beginning a review into all fetal tissue research in September last year.

"The current extension expires on June 5, 2019, and there will be no further extensions," the department said.

The statement added that there would be no new research within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) involving fetal tissue, but federally funded research at external institutes would continue for their approved period.

Any new grant proposals at external bodies like universities would be subject to an ethics advisory board before they could receive new government funds.

The move was hailed by anti-abortion group March for Life, which said: "This type of research involves the gross violation of basic human rights and certainly, the government has no business funding it."

But Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law, wrote on Twitter: "This will devastate crucial research, impeding cures for #Cancer #AIDS #Dementia."

He added that a ban on fetal tissue "is akin to ban on hope for millions suffering from debilitating diseases."

- Humanized mice -

The UCSF research involved the use of so-called "humanized mice" -- mice which received human fetal tissue to create humanlike immune systems in order to test out potential antibodies to HIV.

Approximately 1.1 million people in the US live with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), though annual transmissions have plateaued since 2013 to around 39,000.

Current treatment, especially at an early stage, can prevent the disease from progressing to its most advanced form, AIDS, the Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome.

Last September, the HHS terminated a contract between Advanced Bioscience Resources, Inc and the Food and Drug Administration that provided human fetal tissue from elective abortions to develop testing protocols for labs conducting such experiments.

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