Human Tissue Research

It is a poor reflection on the scientific community that every year in Britain hundreds of thousands of animals are bred and killed, for their tissues or organs to be used in experiments, when an enormous quantity of human material is thrown away. It is not only the destruction of animals that is to be condemned. The overwhelming advantage of human tissue is its direct relevance to human medicine, and so the continued use of animals must be regarded as bad science.

History of the Animal Aid campaign for humane research

Animal Aid has been promoting the use of human tissue for medical research since 1991 when we launched our Humane Research Donor Card (HRDC). Those carrying the card signified that they were willing, after their death, for part or all of their body to be used for research. More than 400,000 cards were distributed to the general public.

In addition, a 200,000-signature petition was presented to the Health Secretary, endorsing our call for the use of donated human tissue. The petition signatories also urged the government to ‘establish and co-ordinate a national network of human tissue banks to overcome the shortage of suitable human material’.

The use of the HRDC has since been discontinued, having achieved its major aim of raising public awareness and encouraging government action, with respect to the replacement of animal tissues with donated human tissues. But more campaigning needs to be done, as countless animals are still being produced and killed every year in the UK simply so that their body parts can be used in experiments.

Furthermore, unlike animals used for experiments while they are still alive, these ‘body-part animals’ don’t even turn up in any official statistics. We were dismayed to find that, the much-touted National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs), which is funded by the Home Office, the Medical Research Council (MRC), the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) and The Wellcome Trust, does not even bother to collect such data.

Advantages of using human tissue

Aside from any animal welfare issues, the clear scientific advantage of using human tissue is that the data it provides is directly relevant to people, unlike experiments on animals.

Human tissue research plays a vital role in developing a deeper understanding of human disease processes and their underlying mechanisms.

Sources of donated human tissue

Human tissue can be removed from living people in the course of medical treatment, from healthy volunteers and from people after their death. In each instance, prior consent must be obtained. Some tissues are readily available, e.g. blood, placenta and umbilical cord; others are available as waste from surgical operations (e.g. cosmetic surgery, mastectomy, circumcision or brain tumour removal) or from biopsies for the diagnosis of disease (e.g. from liver and kidney).

Post mortem tissues may be removed from bodies for immediate use or to be frozen for future use. These post mortem tissues could include almost any part of the body – brain, heart, lung and other organs, skin, blood vessels and bone. They should be removed as soon as possible after death, as certain tissues will lose their viability very quickly.

At present there is no nationwide system for the collection, storage and distribution of human tissue for research. Some hospitals have specialised tissue banks where they collect samples of donated tissue, and researchers often make their own arrangements with local hospitals and doctors to acquire human tissue. There are also a number of brain banks across the country that collect and store tissue for research into neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s.

What you can do

You may be able to help replace animal research, and aid medical progress, by donating your tissue to research. Although it is impossible to guarantee that your tissue will be used in place of animal experiments, helping to make human tissue more readily available can make the use of animal tissue less likely.

Anyone who wishes to leave their body to science after death, should consider the following options. It is essential that you make your wishes known to your family, because the decision as to whether or not your tissues will be used ultimately depends upon their consent being given:

  • Contact your local hospital. If you are having a biopsy taken, or are about to undergo an operation, you can ask the hospital whether your tissue can be used in research. This will depend on what research is taking place locally that requires the type of tissue taken from you, and the availability of storage facilities.
  • Contact one of the specialist human tissue banks.
  • Investigate the possibilities now – tissues deteriorate rapidly after death and quickly become unusable, so where possible you should register your desire to donate tissue with a hospital or tissue bank.
  • Inform your next of kin of your wishes, as they are likely to be asked for their consent.

Note: If you sign up to UK Transplant (the NHS organ donor register), you should be aware that organ transplantation takes precedence over all other considerations. In other words, if you donate your body to UK Transplant, any organs that are useful for transplantation will first be used for that purpose. Relatives of the deceased can specifically give permission for organs or tissues to be used for research, where organs are either surplus to requirement or unsuitable for transplantation.

Usually organs and tissue are collected by specially trained hospital staff within hours of death. Your body is then returned, and your family will be able to make normal funeral arrangements.