The University of Pittsburgh reached out to top National Institutes of Health (NIH) officials to help it respond to criticism of experiments using fetal organs, according to newly released emails.
Calls for a probe were triggered after documents showed the government, including the NIH, awarded millions to the school for a program that used aborted baby organs for experiments, such as grafting fetal skin onto rodents.
In response, the school said in September 2021 it was tapping a law firm, Hyman Phelps & McNamara, to conduct a review to make sure the school’s handling of fetal tissue complied with state and federal laws.
Shortly after the probe was announced, Jeremy Berg, an associate senior vice chancellor at the university, wrote to then-NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins to enlist the assistance of top NIH officials, according to the new emails (pdf).
Berg gave the officials background on the situation and said that the university believed the laws were followed while highlighting how the review triggered fresh complaints, with questions raised about possible conflicts of interest and a limited scope.
“We have been discussing these issues and it seems that this is an organized attempt to delegitimize science based on fetal tissue rather than to identify misbehavior (although, of course, any misbehavior does create opportunities for outrage),” Berg wrote. “In light of this, we feel that the scientific community would benefit if more institutions could stand together to take some of the power out of the one-at-a-time strategy that appears to be operating.”
Berg said the university’s chancellor, Pat Gallagher, who used to direct one of the national institutes, wanted to meet with Collins “or other appropriate individuals at NIH.”
Collins added additional officials, one of whom added Renate Myles, a spokesperson for the office of the NIH director.
Dr. Lawrence Tabak, who replaced Collins in late 2021, floated that he and Dr. Michael Lauer, a deputy director at the NIH, could meet with Gallagher. The response, from another NIH official, was redacted. “yes please,” Tabak said in return.
The following day, Tabak informed Berg that Lauer would be meeting with the university’s vice president and “based upon the outcome of that meeting, Mike and I are willing to meet with your chancellor if that is still desired.”
Lauer told the team he was meeting with the vice president on Zoom.
It’s not clear which of the scheduled meetings actually took place.
The university, Collins, Lauer, and Myles didn’t respond to requests for comment. Collins remains employed at the NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute.
The emails were obtained by Judicial Watch through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit, filed after the nonprofit said the NIH didn’t properly act on their FOIA request.
The group previously obtained government documents that showed the NIH and its parent agency spent nearly $3 million to support the University of Pittsburgh’s effort to ramp up experiments on fetal tissue.
“These documents expose the collusion between the University of Pittsburgh and the NIH over the fetal organ ‘chop shop’ in the University of Pittsburgh paid for with federal tax dollars,” Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said in a statement.
Hyman, Phelps & McNamara concluded its review in late 2021 (pdf), finding that the university met state and federal laws and NIH policy.
“As we have stated in the past: Fetal tissue research plays a critical role in advancing life-saving discoveries. We remain committed to maintaining robust internal controls and to extending our record of compliance at the state and federal levels, and we take these responsibilities seriously,” a university spokesperson said at the time.
But at least some lawmakers who had urged (pdf) the Biden administration to investigate the school over possible violations of federal law remained unconvinced, and several said the newly disclosed emails emphasize the need for a probe.
“These startling revelations that were just released show that we need an actual investigation into the University of Pittsburgh’s fetal tissue research,” Rep. Lisa McClain (R-Mich.) told The Epoch Times via email. “I’m disgusted these researchers may have harvested the organs of babies who were born alive.”
Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) added that the NIH “must appropriately investigate these allegations of misconduct and remind the university of its responsibilities as a federal grantee to the American people.”
“The university is not above the law simply because it’s an academic institution. If the University of Pittsburg is truly innocent of wrongdoing, it should have nothing to hide and should not attempt to divert attention from the issue at hand,” Westerman said.