In a small, unadorned office tucked amid a maze of labs within Boston Children’s Hospital, Emi Takahashi pores over computerized 3-D images of fetal brains she has scanned.
The Harvard neuroscientist has conducted the painstaking work of examining fetal brain tissue since 2008, a field considered one of the most important avenues of medical research. If scientists can better understand how a human brain develops in its earliest stages, researchers say, they may eventually pinpoint the origins of neurological disorders such as autism, epilepsy, even schizophrenia.
But recent controversy over undercover videos accusing Planned Parenthood of harvesting fetal tissue and selling the specimen for a profit has placed this research at the center of the country’s political fight over abortion.
Planned Parenthood has denied the allegation, but abortion foes in Congress and some Republicans running for president have vowed to withhold federal funding from the organization. Some conservative lawmakers are threatening a government shutdown over the issue as Congress prepares for a budget fight next month.
As the political controversy rages in Washington, nearly two dozen government-funded scientists such as Takahashi quietly go about their work in Boston. Nationally, the federal government issued more than $76 million in grants for human fetal tissue research to more than 150 scientists in 2014, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Scientists have conducted research on fetal tissue for decades, resulting in vaccines for polio, chicken pox, and German measles, among other diseases. They are now investigating potential treatments for diseases such as HIV, cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s, and retinal degeneration.
The Longwood medical area received more than $8 million for research using fetal tissue in 2014, more than any region of the country outside of San Francisco and Los Angeles, according to a Globe analysis of NIH data. The bulk of the researchers work for Harvard Medical School and its affiliated hospitals.
Takahashi’s work provides a glimpse into the challenges a researcher faces not just in navigating the mysteries of the human brain but also the political pathways that must be negotiated to make the work possible.
After Congress launched its investigation into Planned Parenthood’s practices in July, Takahashi received a call from a National Institutes of Health program officer about her study of fetal brain development. Her grant application involving 30 fetal brains set off alarm bells among some members of Congress, Takahashi said.
“She was wondering how I would get that many samples,” Takahashi said. “Congress was asking her what was going on with my research, and she wanted to make sure I wasn’t obtaining them illegally.”
It is legal to buy and use fetal tissue for research as long as any fees correspond to the costs of processing the tissue, and no one profits from the retrieval. Federal law does not require consent from the woman bearing the fetus if the specimen remains anonymous, although most hospitals ask donors to sign off.
Although media attention has focused on Planned Parenthood, scientists receive fetal tissue from a variety of sources including hospitals, tissue banks, other abortion clinics, and commercial suppliers. None of the Planned Parenthood clinics in Massachusetts is involved in fetal tissue donation, according to the organization.
Takahashi, a 40-year-old researcher trained in Tokyo and Boston, said she obtains her specimens from an NIH Brain and Tissue Bank run by the University of Maryland in Baltimore. Her team of postdoctoral fellows carefully scan each sample with an MRI, then use a computer program to reconstruct the brain’s fiber pathways. Each pathway relates to a function such as vision, language, and memory that has remained a tangled mystery to scientists.
Takahashi used to receive specimens directly from the pathology departments of local hospitals after fetuses had been aborted or otherwise died in utero, but she said it has become more difficult in recent years to collect the samples, as hospitals instituted stringent rules that require reams of time-consuming paperwork. Takahashi said she is afraid the supply could dwindle even more — “Even now, we’re always short” — because of the controversy.
“Fetal tissue allows us to study development in a way that is just not replicable with other types of adult tissue,” said Carrie Wolinetz, associate director for science policy at the National Institutes of Health. Cells derived from fetal tissue are much easier to grow and more readily adaptable than adult tissue, she said.
President Reagan instituted a moratorium on federal support for fetal tissue research in 1988. President Clinton lifted the ban in 1993. That same year, Congress passed a bill on NIH funding, supported by Democrats and Republicans, that authorized federal support of research involving the transplantation of tissue from aborted fetuses.
The issue has since become so politically charged that one antiabortion activist equated Planned Parenthood’s fetal tissue program to “Nazi death chambers.” Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican running for president, wants to end federal funding for research using aborted fetuses “because it’s immoral,” said Rick Tyler, a Cruz campaign spokesman.
Scientists, meanwhile, have remained largely silent in the national debate, wary of drawing unwanted attention. Many, fearing for their personal safety or their research funding, have declined media interviews.
Bioethicists and scientists say donating organs from a fetus should be no different than donating organs of children who have died.
Dr. Louise King, a surgeon at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and director of reproductive ethics at Harvard Medical School’s Center for Bioethics, said fear that the use of fetal tissue for research would lead to more abortions is unfounded, because consent and counseling for an abortion occur well ahead of any discussion for tissue donation.
“They are two distinct issues,” King said. “Nobody is recruiting people for this. The source of the tissue may pose problems for some people but federal support of using this tissue for the common good is completely ethical.”
The controversy echoes the debate over embryonic stem cell research more than a decade ago over the basic question of when life begins. President George W. Bush had barred most stem cell researchers from receiving federal support in 2001, a ban President Obama overturned in 2009.
In the case of fetal tissue, the remains would be destroyed if not used for research.
“It’s a shame that we have politics dictating how research is done,” said Dr. Leonard Zon, director of the stem cell program at Children’s Hospital and founding president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, who does a small amount of fetal tissue research. “There is tremendous value in studying every stage of development.”
Zon said he thought it was important to speak out and educate the public about the science of embryonic stem cell research 10 years ago despite the controversy. “I felt like if people really understood what was going on, they wouldn’t be so upset by this,” he said.
Dr. Ulrich von Andrian, a Harvard Medical School professor, tested a vaccine for chlamydia on mice that another Harvard scientist had transplanted with human fetal liver and thymus tissue to allow them to harbor a humanlike immune system. He said the recent political controversy could severely compromise researchers’ ability to conduct experiments like those upon which his work relies.
“There are certain religious aspects that are extremely difficult to address because it’s a very emotional issue,” von Andrian said. “One has to respect people’s faith and opinions even if one may not share them. But they could slow down scientific progress. There is so much human suffering that could be solved by research.”
Meanwhile, at Boston Children’s Hospital, Takahashi hopes her research will someday allow doctors to identify and treat developmental disorders at earlier stages. She expressed incredulity that research like hers is entangled in this country’s firestorm over abortion.
“For me,” she said, “it’s purely a scientific issue, not a moral one.”
Tracy Jan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @TracyJan.