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UNMHSC suspends fetal tissue research

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

In 2016, the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center told a congressional panel that some of its most significant discoveries have come from its research involving fetal tissue.

Now, that research has been halted while the university investigates a prominent pediatrics physician who was the sole researcher at HSC using fetal tissue from induced abortions at a private Albuquerque abortion clinic.

“We’re not conducting research with fetal tissue samples at this time,” said Alex Sanchez, spokeswoman for HSC, on Friday.

Asked when such research might resume, Sanchez said, “It’s all pending at the moment.”

Dr. Robin Ohls

UNM’s decision to suspend the research of Dr. Robin Ohls and bar her from her laboratory came in late October, after health sciences officials learned she had been transferring fetal tissue to an independent research facility in Michigan. At issue is whether she followed appropriate protocols and obtained proper approvals.

Ohls, a professor of pediatrics in the Division of Neonatology at UNM, has been on the faculty since 1995. She is listed as an author or co-author on more than 60 published articles and has been active in clinical/translational research for more than 20 years. She couldn’t be reached for comment.

Sanchez reiterated Friday that HSC for now cannot comment on the matter.

“We understand that there are questions,” she said. “We have questions, too. But we cannot compromise the investigation.”

Without identifying Ohls, Sanchez told the Journal that the Health Sciences Center has had only one researcher conducting “very limited” research involving fetal tissue.

Ohls, according to an internal memo obtained by the Journal, has been regularly acquiring fetal tissue from Southwestern Women’s Options and transferring it to Zietchick Research Institute in Michigan since February 2017. The research facility was founded in 2012 by Dr. Tammy Movas to “develop novel treatments for eye diseases that affect moms and infants,” according to its website.

HSC staff first learned about the transfers when Ohls inquired in October as to whether Zietchick could reimburse the university for part of her lab assistant’s salary to compensate for the time spent preparing tissue samples for transport.

Such reimbursement could potentially infringe on the university’s policy not to buy or sell human tissue, according to the confidential memo obtained by the Journal.

The university since 2015 has been under scrutiny by local anti-abortion groups and some state legislators, in part for its use of fetal tissue from the Albuquerque abortion clinic for research. The clinic is one of the few nationwide that performs late-term abortions.

In 2016, the Health Sciences Center became embroiled in an investigation by the U.S. Select Investigative Panel of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. The Republican-led panel, now disbanded, was created to investigate Planned Parenthood and the fetal tissue industry.

According to the panel’s final report issued in January 2017, Southwestern Women’s Options since 1995 has been HSC’s sole source of fetal tissue for research.

In early 2016, the House panel issued two subpoenas to HSC inquiring about that arrangement.

In response, UNM contended its collaboration with the abortion clinic was “integral” to its research and led to improved neonatal care and infant outcomes.

A UNM “research doctor” who wasn’t identified in the report published “at least eight studies” that used fetal tissue, the panel report stated.

Many of those studies, published online, show Ohls as one of the authors.

In addition, UNM reported 11 medical students or residents and eight faculty members also participated in fetal tissue research, the final report states.

In response to Journal questions, HSC officials wouldn’t say this week whether UNM transferred fetal tissue from Southwestern Women’s Options to any other private entities outside the university.

In its response to the House panel, UNM stated that fetal tissue has been shared with the University of South Florida, the University of Ottawa in Canada, and the University of California San Francisco. There was no mention of any non-academic research organization.

HSC officials, in responding to the House panel, stressed that no “consideration is exchanged for the tissue as part of these collaborative research projects.”

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