How Texas’ Fetal Tissue Laws Are Helping Researchers Develop a Zika Vaccine

Could fetal tissue research help understand how the Zika virus affects pregnant women?

By Ashley LopezApril 1, 2016 9:39 am,

This story originally appeared on KUT.

Believe it or not, Texas is not among a short list of states that prohibits fetal tissue research. Advocates and researchers say that’s a good thing, because Texas is among a list of states that would be affected if the Zika virus makes it into the U.S. mosquito population.

Some might remember the release of some controversial videos last year that purported to show Planned Parenthood officials selling fetal tissue. The videos were discredited, but they put the issue of fetal tissue back into the national spotlight. So, about a month ago, Congress held a hearing about it.

“Last summer’s videos revealed that something very troubling is going on related to fetal tissue and research,” said Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee at the hearing. “There is something going on, and something that deserves investigating, and it demands our best moral and ethical thinking.”

But, the discussion that day turned away from politics to an important public health issue: the battle to prevent and understand Zika.

Zika is a mosquito-borne illness currently plaguing South America, with pregnant women and their babies being the most vulnerable to the virus. Both the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control have confirmed Zika is responsible for a rash of microcephaly cases among infants and newborns in South America.

University of Wisconsin Law Professor Alta Charo told members of the panel this is a moment where fetal tissue could potentially save lives.

“Right now, we are struggling to understand exactly how the Zika virus operates, how it is that it can be transmitted through the placenta to the fetus, how it is it can affect fetal development at different stages of gestation and how we can understand what kinds of outcomes it will have,” Charo said.

And, because Texas only prohibits the selling or purchasing of human tissue, labs in Texas have already begun the fight against Zika. Doctor Patrick Ramsey is a maternal fetal medicine specialist at UT San Antonio.

“There are a number of places in Houston – UTMB in Galveston has a large virus laboratory, and they are gearing up to develop a vaccine for Zika,” Ramsey said.

Ramsey explains that, even though little is known about Zika, researchers do know that it really harms fetal brain development. So, he says, this tissue is really essential to the process of figuring out why.

“I think it’s really important that we are doing research actively, both for prevention of Zika to get into the mosquito population in Texas, as well as evaluating a way to test for Zika and then to the get to the basic science end of it, of how does this virus actually affect the fetal brain tissue,” he said.

According to the CDC, there have been more than 300 travel-associated Zika cases in the U.S. and no cases acquired from the local mosquito population. However, state officials have been gearing up in Texas for mosquito season in case the local mosquito becomes infected.