Pitt hires outside law firm to review fetal tissue research practices


Image via Vicki Vellios Briner, Pennlive.com, TNS

The Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg.

By Rebecca Johnson and Martha Layne

Pitt hired the law firm Hyman, Phelps & McNamara to conduct an independent review of its fetal tissue research practices to ensure compliance with state and federal guidelines, state Rep. Natalie Mihalek announced Thursday.

Pitt’s fetal tissue research has drawn ire from Republicans in the state legislature for years, but the debate recently intensified during talks about Pitt’s state funding. Many scientists say fetal tissue is important for research studies — leading to vaccines for rabies and rubella — while anti-abortion activists argue against the practice.

At a Pennsylvania House health committee hearing in May, members lodged accusations about Pitt’s research methods. When the legislature voted on Pitt’s state funding in June, a GOP lawmaker cited the research to vote against Pitt’s funding. The legislature ultimately approved flat funding for Pitt — the third year in a row the University received the same level of funding.

Pitt, as a state-related university, receives annual funding from the Commonwealth to use for tuition costs for in-state students as well as rural education programs, after receiving two-thirds approval from the legislature. 

Mihalek — a Republican who represents parts of Allegheny and Washington counties, who is also a 2004 Pitt alumna and member of Pitt’s Board of Trustees — said in a press release she agreed with the decision. She is also chair of the state House appropriations subcommittee on education.

“When controversy first arose over this program, I concurred with the University’s leadership that the best path forward was an open and transparent review by an independent third party,” Mihalek said.

She said the investigation will begin immediately and a full report will be made available upon its completion. But Pitt’s statement said only University senior leadership will be briefed on the firm’s findings.

The University’s statement said fetal tissue research is subject to “robust internal controls” and is “highly regulated” at both the state and federal level. It also said the University “routinely conducts reviews to ensure that its research activities — across all areas of research — comply with internal policies as well as all relevant federal and state laws.”

“Pitt has taken this proactive step to ensure that it is positioned to continue leading the way — scientifically, legally and ethically — in practicing and advancing life-saving research,” the statement said.

The article’s headline was updated to clarify that the law firm was hired to review fetal tissue practices.