The government’s action comes after 85 members of the US House of Representatives sent a letter to FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb on 17 September, claiming that ABR might have violated federal law by selling “the body parts of children” for a profit. In 2016, a special House committee — the Republican-led Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives — had referred the company to the US Department of Justice for investigation. ABR did not immediately respond to Nature’s requests for comment.
“We are alarmed that the FDA has continued to award contracts to ABR for the procurement of human fetal tissue,” the lawmakers wrote to Gottlieb. “We urge you to cancel this contract immediately and to utilize alternative, modern scientific techniques that do not contribute to the trafficking in baby body parts.”
The HHS has offered little detail about its review of fetal-tissue contracts and research. In its statement, the department said that it is auditing “all acquisitions involving human fetal tissue” to ensure that firms that supply the tissue adhere to federal regulations.
The department has also begun reviewing all research involving fetal tissue “to ensure the adequacy of procedures and oversight of this research in light of the serious regulatory, moral, and ethical considerations involved”, as well as whether alternatives to fetal-tissue research exist. The HHS has not clarified whether its review will include all fetal-tissue research performed in the United States, or only that funded by the federal government.
Larry Goldstein, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, says that it’s hard to know why the HHS decided to cancel the contract. “I think the question is whether there’s an attempt to politicize this or whether we can keep to straight scientific and medical merit,” he says. “We support reasonable, non-politically motivated regulation.”