By Denise Grady and Nicholas St. Fleur

New York Times News Service

Videos released by an anti-abortion group during the last two weeks have drawn attention to a little-known practice: the buying, selling and research use of fetal tissue acquired from abortion clinics.

The group behind the tapes accuses Planned Parenthood of selling fetal tissue for profit — which is illegal and which Planned Parenthood denies doing. House Republicans plan to investigate. This may be just one more battle in the nation’s long war over abortion, but the dispute has raised questions about who the buyers and sellers are, what fetal tissue is used for and what the law allows.

Scientists at major universities and government labs have quietly been using fetal tissue for decades. They say it is an invaluable tool for certain types of research, including the study of eye diseases, diabetes and muscular dystrophy. Nevertheless, some agree to talk about it only if their names and their universities’ names are withheld, because they have received threats of violence from abortion opponents. Companies that obtain the tissue from clinics and sell it to laboratories exist in a gray zone, legally. Federal law says they cannot profit from the tissue itself, but the law does not specify how much they can charge for processing and shipping.

The National Institutes of Health spent $76 million on research using fetal tissue in 2014 with grants to more than 50 universities, including Columbia, Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, Yale and the University of California in Berkeley, Irvine, Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco. It expects to spend the same amount in 2015 and 2016.

Researchers say fetal tissue is a uniquely rich source of the stem cells that give rise to tissues and organs, and that studying how they develop can provide clues about how to grow replacements for parts of the body that have failed.

“Think of fetal tissue as a kind of instruction booklet,” said Sheldon Miller, the scientific director of the intramural research program at the National Eye Institute.

Stem cells derived from adult tissue may eventually replace fetal ones, researchers say, but the science is not there yet.

Eye tissue from fetuses has played a crucial role in studies aimed at finding treatments for degenerative diseases of the retina that are a major cause of vision loss in people as they age, according to Miller.

“We couldn’t get this information any other way,” Miller said. He said the eye institute bought fetal tissue from a company, created specialized cultures of retinal tissue from it and sent them to other researchers.

A university researcher who asked not to be identified because he had received threats that led his institution to post a guard outside his laboratory said fetal tissue was extraordinarily useful because “if you want to understand how a tissue or a disease develops, you should go back to the beginning.”

Another researcher, also concerned about threats, said fetal tissue was essential in research to develop treatments for degenerative diseases of muscle, because “to regenerate tissues in a human, you need to understand how human cells work.” Animal tissue can take researchers only so far, they say, because there are critical differences in development.

Fetal tissue can be used only with the consent of the woman having an abortion. Some researchers receive the tissue from abortion clinics at their own institutions, or from tissue banks maintained by some universities. Many buy the tissue from companies that act as middlemen. Those companies pay small fees, usually $100 or less a specimen, to abortion providers like Planned Parenthood, who say they charge only what they need to cover their expenses. The companies then process the tissue and sell it to researchers for higher prices that reflect the processing.

The fees, which can run to thousands of dollars for a tiny vial of cells, do not break the law, according to Arthur Caplan, the director of the division of medical ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center.

“It appears to be legal, no matter how much you charge,” Caplan said, adding that there appears to be little or no oversight of the processing fees. “It’s a very gray and musty area as to what you can charge.”

Many researchers buy tissue from two small California companies. StemExpress, a 5-year-old business based in Placerville, California, describes itself as “the largest provider of maternal blood and fetal tissue globally.” It also says it offers “special discounts to the academic community.”

Its founder, Cate Dyer, has a bachelor’s degree in sociology from California State University, Sacramento. She started StemExpress with $9,000. An article last November in Sacramento Business Journal said that the company had grown more than 1,300 percent in three years. Its revenue was $2.2 million, according to a report in August 2014 in Inc. magazine.

Dyer said that fetal tissue accounted for about 10 percent of the company’s business. She agreed to be interviewed on the condition that she not be asked about the congressional investigation into her company’s partnership with Planned Parenthood. Her lawyer and a crisis communication expert were present on the telephone interview.

She said the company obtained fetal tissue in accordance with the rules made by ethics boards at the institutions buying it, and the tissue has been used in studies of leukemia, Hodgkin’s lymphoma and Parkinson’s disease.

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