CHICAGO (AP) — Covert videos released by an anti-abortion group have opened a window on a largely unknown corner of science: the middlemen who supply researchers with human fetal cells from elective abortions.
For decades, these typically small companies or nonprofits have been quietly processing human tissue and filling orders for fetal cells from scientists studying eye disease, HIV, autism and other conditions. Until recently, their biggest challenge was finding an adequate supply because of a nationwide drop in the number of abortions.
Now three players in the tissue-procurement industry — StemExpress, Novogenix Laboratories and Advanced Bioscience Resources, all based in California — face unprecedented scrutiny after the secretly recorded videos raised questions about whether Planned Parenthood or any other entity was illegally profiting from the handling of fetal tissue.
Four congressional committees have begun holding investigative hearings into the matter and anti-abortion activists have targeted the tissue providers on the Internet. StemExpress has had to call police and hire extra security after employees received personal threats. Guards have chased people from the yard at the home of the company's chief executive.
StemExpress also faces a separate inquiry by state officials in Arizona.
"No organization should be able to profit from the distribution of human tissue harvested from aborted fetuses, whether it's an abortion clinic or a middleman," Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said in an emailed statement to The Associated Press.
He said his committee's inquiry does not single out any one organization. One of its goals, Grassley said, is "to see if the laws on fetal tissue should be changed in light of the actual practices of the organizations."
While those inquiries remain ongoing, the House set votes for later this week on bills blocking federal funding for Planned Parenthood for a year and creating new criminal penalties for medical providers who don't try to save the life of an infant born alive during abortions.
None of the tissue brokers named in the videos has been charged with any wrongdoing, and all have been cooperating with the congressional committees.
Fetal cells are considered ideal for some research because they divide rapidly and adapt to new environments easily. Federal law prohibits anyone from profiting from the sale of fetal tissue, allowing fees to be charged only to cover costs such as transportation, processing and storage.
Nonprofit and university labs once acted as the primary middlemen between abortion clinics and scientists. Since 2010, a small number of for-profit companies have stepped into a field that generated little attention until the videos were released this summer.
Congressional committees have requested information from StemExpress, Novogenix and Advance Bioscience Resources about their contracts, costs and fees related to fetal tissue, to determine if they and Planned Parenthood are acting legally.
Planned Parenthood sent a letter to congressional leaders defending its practices, denying it profits from fetal tissue and saying the videos were heavily edited to show the organization in an unfavorable light.
Executives from the tissue-brokering companies told House committee staff that they paid Planned Parenthood affiliates $45 to $60 per specimen to cover clinic costs and that they obtain all donor consents required by state law and research institutions, according to a memo from Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
The Democrats' memo does not delve into fees the companies charge researchers for specimens, but a StemExpress invoice from 2013 shows the company charged Colorado State University $250 for a fetal liver and $250 for a fetal thymus, plus $85 for priority overnight shipping. Per-specimen fees charged to researchers by Advanced Bioscience Resources range from $340 to $550, depending on processing costs.
The three companies are taking varying approaches to the scrutiny.
Los Angeles-based Novogenix is the smallest, with just two employees and annual gross revenue of $130,000, according to a Dun and Bradstreet report. It has kept quiet aside from talking with the congressional committees, and a company representative declined comment to the AP.
Advanced Bioscience Resources directed a reporting inquiry to a law firm, which issued an email statement.
"Since our inception in 1989, ABR's procurement and provision of fetal tissue has been performed with the highest ethical standards," attorney Nikhila Raj said in an emailed statement on ABR's behalf, pledging full cooperation with the congressional inquiries.
ABR, a nonprofit based in Alameda, across the bay from San Francisco, was founded under a different name in 1989 by Dr. Norman Fisk, an obstetrician-gynecologist who worked at a San Francisco abortion clinic. He eventually turned the nonprofit over to a registered nurse named Linda Tracy.
ABR's annual net income has never been more than $1.5 million, derived almost entirely from fees paid by researchers for fetal and other tissue, according to its federal nonprofit tax filings. Tracy, its highest paid employee, makes roughly $173,000 a year.
A former contract employee for ABR, Cate Dyer, moved on to start StemExpress, which has taken a more aggressive stance in defending itself.
Based in the historic Sierra foothills gold mining town of Placerville, about a 45-minute drive east of Sacramento, StemExpress filed a lawsuit against the Center for Medical Progress, the anti-abortion group behind the secretly recorded videos, claiming it violated state law by recording an interview with Dyer without permission. The company issued statements on its website condemning the videos' "unsupported false accusations," but declined to have Dyer speak on the record.
StemExpress also severed ties with Planned Parenthood, although a spokesman said the company will continue to acquire fetal tissue from other clinics and hospitals. It has said that fetal tissue plays a small role in the company's cell products, which also include samples from umbilical cord blood, tumors and bone marrow.
The 5-year-old company had revenue of $4.5 million last year and was named by Inc. magazine as one of the 50 fastest-growing, women-led private companies in America.
In addition to the three companies under scrutiny by Congress, about a half-dozen others around the country offer human fetal material for research. None agreed to speak with the AP.
The National Institutes of Health sponsors a federally funded fetal tissue supply lab at the University of Washington, where the lab director agreed to discuss its role.
The lab acquires fetal tissue from abortions and miscarriages at two hospitals and seven stand-alone clinics, said research scientist Theresa Naluai-Cecchini, who heads the lab.
It charges academic researchers a flat fee of $200 per day for its lab time processing fetal tissue samples. In 2014, the lab distributed 1,109 fetal tissue samples and collected $49,937 in fees from researchers.
Consent is obtained for each fetal tissue donation, Naluai-Cecchini said. She said she has personally discussed donation with couples after they've decided to terminate a pregnancy because of a rare disorder that would end in stillbirth. Researchers say cells from such fetuses help them find ways to prevent birth defects.
"I often get emotional about it because I understand this is not an easy decision," Naluai-Cecchini said. "I feel the weight and responsibility to do good by them in that decision. I believe the researchers we give these samples to appreciate the weight of that decision, and their goal is to do good."
AP Medical Writer Carla K. Johnson can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/CarlaKJohnson