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UNMHSC lab assistant’s notebook details use, condition of fetal tissue

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

University of New Mexico Health Sciences faculty members sought whole fetal brains supplied by an abortion clinic so the brains could be dissected for “summer camp students,” according to documents subpoenaed by the U.S. House Select Panel on Infant Lives.

A00_jd_jd_31jul_notebook-comboA lab assistant who screened fetal tissue samples obtained by UNM also wrote in his notebook “whoo hoo!!” when the clinic was able to provide a “whole pancreas” of a fetus for another project and drew a frowning face next to an entry that showed that another fetal pancreas was not intact.

Those comments appeared in “procurement notes” the lab assistant made to report on the condition of fetal tissue samples UNM received from the abortion clinic, which were then separated to be parsed out for various research projects.

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UNM officials acknowledged that a six-week “Neuroscience Summer Experience” in 2012 and 2014 involved fetal brain dissections. They said it was not a camp, but an educational research program in which all participating students were UNM undergraduate and graduate students or children of UNM faculty members. The brain dissections were conducted by faculty as program participants watched.

The procurement notes were part of hundreds of pages of documents made public after the House panel subpoenaed records from the UNM Health Sciences Center and Albuquerque abortion provider Southwestern Women’s Options as part of its investigation into the use of fetal tissue for medical research.

In one notation on May 24, 2012, the lab assistant wrote, “Asked clinic for digoxin treated tissue 24-28 wks. for methylation study & because (redacted) wants whole, fixed brains to dissect w/summer camp students.”

Digoxin is a heart medication that is sometimes injected into amniotic fluid or a fetus to cause fetal demise before an abortion. A methylation study looks for gene activation in human tissue samples.

Other notations included personal commentary by the lab assistant.

One notation on Jan. 21, 2015, said “stomach broken, no panc (pancreas)” with a frowning face emoji next to it. Another entry from June 7, 2013, declared, “entire pancreas – whoo hoo!!” An entry from June 14, 2012, regarding brain tissue had the lab assistant writing in darker ink, “she plated it Monday they grew wonderfully!!”

The procurement notes appear in the lab assistant’s own handwriting, often using a type of shorthand, in a standard composition notebook with grid-type pages.

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No financial gain

Elisa Martinez, executive director of the anti-abortion New Mexico Alliance for Life, told the Journal she objected to the flippant tone of the lab assistant’s notations.

“Despite UNM’s claims that “the research activities are done with great respect,” Martinez said, “we don’t find that to be the case.”

And her organization was concerned about the reference to dissecting fetal brains for “summer camp students.”

Earlier this month, UNM released a statement through Health Sciences Center spokesman Billy Sparks that described an educational research program that included fetal brain tissue. According to the statement, in the summers of 2012 and 2014, “two UNM faculty members responded to requests from students for more research experiences in the neurosciences.”

The faculty members came up with what they called a Neuroscience Summer Experience. The faculty members were not named. Participating students were UNM undergraduate and graduate students or the children of UNM faculty members. UNM offered no numbers or ages of students.

The summer program was “not sponsored” by UNM, the Office of Diversity’s Dream Makers or the independent Mind Research Network, located on the UNM campus, according to the statement. UNM would say only that it was organized by “faculty” who have access to the facilities, but it was not officially sponsored by the university.

The six-week Neuroscience Summer Experience included a wide range of activities and lectures held in rooms at the Mind Research Network, classrooms at the UNM Health Sciences Center and in the UNM Anatomy Laboratory, where fetal brain dissections were conducted by faculty as program participants watched, according to the university. Participants could opt out of any portion of the summer experience.

The samples used in the summer program were already stored in the tissue bank maintained by the Health Sciences Center. The tissue samples in the bank come from Southwestern Women’s Options, the source of all fetal tissue UNM obtains for its research, the university said. It added that all state and federal laws were followed in the procurement and use of the samples, and there was no financial gain to UNM from the summer program.

More than 80 percent of the summer program participants have gone on to careers in science and medicine, “and many have attended top-tier undergraduate, graduate and medical schools,” the university said.

‘Inartful’ word choices

Regarding the language and tone found in the procurement notes, Sparks said procurement notebooks are usually filled out by “less experienced lab assistants” and, in this case, the word “camp” was “an inartful shorthand that inaccurately described an educational neuroscience research program that mostly served undergraduate college and graduate students.”

The New Mexico Alliance for Life has raised concerns about UNM Health Sciences Center’s relationship with the clinic for more than a year and last summer asked legislators to question the school about its ties with the clinic.

UNMHSC officials said late last year that they would no longer send medical fellows or residents to the clinic, but that they would continue to receive fetal tissue from the clinic.

The officials said the move wasn’t related to questions raised about the relationship from at least one state lawmaker, the anti-abortion advocacy group and the Journal.

Martinez said last week that she still has problems with what she calls UNM’s “shroud of secrecy” regarding attempts by the alliance to get information about the university’s tissue procurement process to determine if it consistently follows all state and federal regulations.

Her organization has criticized UNM for redacting names and other identifying information from the documents obtained by the House panel.

Further, she said, her organization made repeated requests to UNM for details regarding the fetal tissue it obtains from Southwestern Women’s Options and was told the university did not keep such information.

UNM has said it responded to the requests for information and that it redacted identifying information over concern for the safety of personnel involved in using fetal tissue.

“The procurement notes are extremely detailed, containing information about tissue sample weight, age, type of organ or body part, the condition of the tissue, if it’s whole or separated and that sort of thing,” Martinez said.

“UNM appears to have violated open record laws by saying in their responses to our multiple IPRA (Inspection of Public Record Act) requests that they didn’t have this information, when we now know that the information clearly does exist in procurement notebooks.”

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