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Reaction mixed to UNM’s decision to halt fetal tissue program

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Dr. Paul Roth

The end of two decades of fetal tissue research at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center has anti-abortion advocates applauding, while others lament the potential loss of medical advances the research might have yielded.

The recent decision by Chancellor Dr. Paul Roth to permanently bar Dr. Robin Ohls, a Health Sciences Center pediatrics professor, from any research involving fetal tissue effectively eliminates the program at the center.

As the sole fetal tissue researcher and neonatology division chief, Ohls has collaborated with various other research and academic institutions around the country since creating the program in 1995.

In the past decade, Ohls’ research laboratory has relied on fetal tissue for studies involving brain, retina, intestine, lung, heart and blood problems that can afflict preterm infants.

A Health Sciences Center spokeswoman told the Journal the action taken against Ohls would not affect other researchers who might someday propose using fetal tissue.

Roth’s decision comes 18 months after the Health Sciences Center, and its fetal tissue supplier, Southwestern Women’s Options clinic of Albuquerque, emerged from the scrutiny of a U.S. House panel investigating Planned Parenthood, research institutions, abortion providers and companies that prepare fetal tissue for research.

State Attorney General Hector Balderas’ office cleared UNM of any violations of state law earlier this year, but the Republican-led House Select Panel on Infant Lives asked for a review from the U.S. Justice Department, which declines to comment on pending investigations.

Ohls has contended that she never willfully disregarded Health Science Center human tissue policies, including one that was bolstered in April 2016 amid the 15-month-long congressional investigation that ended in early 2017.

The New Mexico Alliance for Life applauds the closure of the research program, but says the findings of UNM’s seven-month investigation into Ohls’ actions should now be turned over to federal authorities.

“We are pleased that UNM has finally decided to institute full compliance with all federal and state laws regulating human fetal tissue research,” the Alliance stated in a news release. But the Alliance has questioned whether there has been “possible misconduct” involving the now-upended arrangement between Ohls and the Michigan-based Zietchick Research Institute for study of the developing eye.

“Why would an internal policy violation spur the closure of a 20 year program, that Dr. Roth once defiantly touted …” Elisa Martinez, Alliance executive director, told the Journal. “The burden now lies on UNM to prove that Dr. Ohls and her research team did not profit from the fetal tissue transfer.”

To support its case, the Alliance released emails from Tammy Movsas, of Zietchick, to Ohls in 2017 stating in part, “I can reimburse up to a total of $7500” or $150 per each sample. It also released an email from Ohls to Movsas stating, “Our collaboration is really the only compensation we receive to cover the amount of time needed for tissue collection so it is important for us to be able to document ongoing research.”

Ohls said no one at Health Sciences was paid by Zietchick for their time and the only expenditures involved in the transfer were the costs of shipping the fetal eye material to the research institute.

Under federal law, it is unlawful for any person to knowingly acquire, receive or otherwise transfer any human fetal tissue for “valuable consideration” if the transfer affects interstate commerce. Transportation costs are not considered “valuable consideration.”

The Alliance news release concludes with the contention that there is “an institution-wide problem under the leadership of Paul Roth at the UNM Health Sciences Center.”

Asked about the Alliance’s assertions, Health Sciences spokesman Michael Haederle said in an email, “UNM has always followed all federal and state laws, regulations and guidelines pertaining to fetal tissue research, and we have been transparent and cooperative with every agency that has inquired into our work in this area. The plain fact is that UNM has never bought or sold fetal tissue. Additionally, the New Mexico Attorney General determined, following an investigation, that UNM’s actions with respect to fetal tissue did not violate any state civil or criminal laws. We would respectfully request that any characterization of the findings from our investigation offered by an outside entity not be taken at face value.”

Joan Lamunyon Sanford, executive director of the New Mexico Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, told the Journal that in cases in which a pregnancy isn’t healthy “it can be very comforting when the parents have the option to donate the tissue for research.”

Moreover, she stated, “I am grateful for all the hugely impactful medical advancements that have resulted because of caring women and families who made the compassionate decision to donate fetal tissue. Fetal tissue research enables medical advances that would otherwise be impossible; the researchers deserve the respect and gratitude of society.”

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