Animal Aid


Posted 1 September 1997

The needless slaughter of animals

In laboratories throughout the land, thousands of animals "donate" their eyes, liver, kidney, lungs and hearts for research. Scientists use the tissues to investigate disease, learn now the body works, and test new drugs. But the destruction of animals is unnecessary for there is an obvious alternative - human tissue.

This can be obtained from healthy volunteers, biopsies, surgical operations (where waste tissue would normally be thrown away) and post-mortem samples. Some in the medical sector have already responded to the challenge:

  • In 1995 the University of Nottingham opened a new tissue culture facility costing £120,000, declaring it, "will mean a move away from traditional animal testing ... to the more ethically sound use of donated human cells and tissues".
  • A new company, Pharmagene Laboratories Ltd, has been formed which focuses exclusively on human tissue for research. It will develop drugs and also do tests for other companies to reduce animal experiments.
  • The International Institute for the Advancement of Medicine has recently established a major new tissue bank at the University of Leicester to collect, store and distribute human tissues for research. The facility will obtain human bodies and tissues from hospitals, mainly from brain-dead donors who have previously given consent for the use of their remains in medical research. Experimenters can apply to the University if they need human material.

Human tissue - the benefits

Human tissue tests would not only save animals, they would produce more reliable results. For example, liver is widely used for experiments. Since it is the main organ in the body where drugs and chemicals are metabolised, or broken down, scientists study these effects in the test-tube using liver tissue. Although human tissue is occasionally used, all too often rats and other animals are killed for the purpose. Yet toxicologists acknowledge that species differences in metabolism are the rule rather than the exception!

The Animal Aid Humane Research Donor Card

Scientists cite lack of availability as the chief obstacle to using human tissue, and it was to help solve this problem that Animal Aid launched the Humane Research Donor Card (HRDC) in 1991. The card gives permission for tissue to be taken from the body after death and be used in medical research and testing.

The need for a network of human tissue storage banks

Many people who wish to leave their bodies for research and who carry the HRDC are disappointed that some hospitals do not have facilities for collection, storage and distribution of human material. A co-ordinated network of storage banks would prevent donated tissues and surgical specimens from going to waste and enable them to be used whenever convenient. Although such a system exists for transplant purposes, it is a different matter when human tissue is needed for research. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics tried to remedy this problem in its 1995 report Human Tissue: Ethical and Legal Issues. It "recommend[ed] that the Department of Health establish a central register of tissue banks approved for supplying tissue for medical treatment and research", in order to "maximise the efficiency of human supply".

One reason for improving availability of human tissue, the Council explains, is because, "The use of human tissue for research is also seen as a way of reducing the use of animals for research".

Another effective initiative would be for the Department of Health to introduce a single new donor card which given people the option of leaving their bodies for transplantation and/or research purposes. Then, human tissue researchers would have access to the same efficient system which collects, stores and distributes organs for transplant. In the meantime, the HRDC gives a firm and clear commitment to promote safe and ethical research.

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