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The campaign for humane research

Nearly half a million animals are bred and killed every year just so that their body parts can be used in test tube studies. At the same time, huge amounts of a more logical research material - human tissue - are being incinerated. Animal Aid has been fighting this insanity since 1991. At last, progress is in sight.

Every year in the UK, 400,000 animals are bred and killed simply so that their body parts can be used for test tube research. Unlike animals used for experiments while they're still alive, these 'body-part animals' don't even turn up in any official statistics. They are science's forgotten victims.

In 1991, Animal Aid launched a campaign to end the animal carnage and for researchers to make use, instead, of donated human tissue. Since then, we have distributed half a million humane research donor cards to the public, presented a 200,000-signature petition to the government, and produced a series of persuasive scientific reports, culminating in the October 1997 publication of Human Tissue: The Neglected resource; replacing animals in research. This called for the introduction by government of a new donor card that offers carriers the choice of consenting to parts of their bodies being used after death for organ transplantation, for tissue research, or for both - whatever the individual's preference.

The good news is that political, scientific and medical support is building for our campaign. More than 80 MPs and several leading scientists and hospital physicians have endorsed our call for government action. Even New Scientist magazine has commended our campaign in a full-page editorial.

While we haven't yet won the war, we are finally seeing the beginnings of a proper system for registering potential donors, and for retrieving, safely storing and distributing their donated tissues to researchers who can make use of them.

Many of you who carry Animal Aid's Humane Research Donor Card - which signals that you want your own tissues used for research after your death - have been as frustrated as we have by the painfully slow pace of change. But we ask you to keep the faith. We have every reason to feel positive and to re-apply ourselves to a campaign initiative that is now nearly 10 years old.

Animal Aid's humane research campaign is directed at encouraging the use of donated human tissue to replace the use of animals. This is why we are pressing bodies that hand out research grants to make no awards to any project where animal tissues are employed.

On the broader question of animal experiments, our position is simple: we oppose it all, however it's done and whatever the supposed justification. We regard vivisection as an abuse of power, as well as a scientifically flawed practice. It is not possible to reliably apply data from animal tests to human beings.

Peterborough district hospital
While hospitals have long been involved in the collection of a whole range of organs and other tissues for 'therapeutic' use (i.e. for transplantation), it is comparatively rare for them to retrieve tissues from patients for use in commercial drug research. Where research tissues are collected, they are usually used only by in-house academics or by their equivalents in other hospitals. Those voracious consumers of research tissues - commercial drug companies - have rarely got a look in. Instead, they've turned to breeding, killing and stripping down animals. Or getting others to do the job for them.

Now Peterborough District Hospital (PDH) look to be breaking the mould. From a tentative start three years ago, PDH routinely bank 40 types of tissue, which they make available to a total of 14 major drug companies and smaller contract testing houses.

Much of the material is obtained from the hospital's own patients. The histopathology department - in which the bank is located - gets a weekly list of every operation. After checking which ones might yield left-over tissue - such as surplus biopsy material or even amputated limbs - a research nurse goes onto the wards with consent forms, making sure she fully explains the ethical and legal implications, and that donated tissue will be used by commercial drug companies.

In this way, they get in excess of five surgical specimens a week, and rarely a refusal.

Some members of the Association for Tissue Banking (ATB) were initially concerned at the emergence of research tissue banks such as Peterborough's. The ATB is a six year old professional association whose members are involved in retrieving and making available transplantable materials such as corneas, skin, heart valves and bone. They 'harvest' these from both living and dead patients and, unlike vital organs such as the liver, kidney and heart, they can be preserved, banked and called upon when needed.

The worry within ATB was that schemes such as Peterborough's would 'steal away' for research purposes, tissue that the association surgeons wanted for clinical use. But having seen that Peterborough works on the basis that clinical use takes priority; and having been satisfied by the standards the hospital is working to; ATB members in one tissue bank (Tissue Services - East Anglia) are now significant suppliers of research tissues from deceased donors. Between September 1998 and February this year - and with full relatives' consent - they made available seven whole bodies, having first removed - when possible - the transplantatable parts.

What some ATB members are coming to recognise is that many of their donors want the maximum use put to their bodies after death, whether via transplant or for research.

The appeal of the scheme for Peterborough Hospital is that it allows them to develop their laboratory facilities and, ultimately, to make links with commercial drug companies (for instance, helping to test new drugs) that result in a financial return to the NHS. Under the last government's privatisation measures, many NHS hospitals felt that their laboratory services were under threat of being cherry picked by those same drug companies.

As to the mechanics of tissue retrieval, speed is vital. A maximum delay of 12 hours is Peterborough's target and they make use of a specialist courier service to ensure that they operate within those limits.

While the PDH have now established a register of whole-body donors, their in-house resources restrict them as to how much they can take on. They are an NHS hospital laboratory and their prime objective is to provide diagnostic services to the NHS. They are also effectively confined to a maximum 100 mile radius of the hospital.

Association of tissue banking
Among the more sensitive questions facing members of the Association of Tissue Banking is the extent to which they want to get involved in retrieving and passing on tissues from patients (living or dead) who want their tissues used for research rather than for transplantation.

Animal Aid believes that it should be a question of patient choice and that if, as we are constantly told by leaders in the field, medical research is vital for delivering improved therapies, then the acquisition of a valuable research material - donated human tissue - should be a priority. Equally, there should be no bar either to its donation or collection. In April - after this Outrage went to press - ATB was planning to discuss the whole question of tissues for research at its annual conference. Hopefully, more members will agree to follow the lead established in East Anglia. That means either becoming a supplier of research tissue to Peterborough District Hospital; or helping to open up their own local, hospital-based tissue banks so that these banks can begin retrieving and storing materials not just for transplantation and not just for in-house academic research, but also for use by the biggest consumers of animal tissue - commercial drug companies.

Established in 1996 with £6.4 million of venture capital funding, Pharmagene is the world's first drug development company wholly committed to using human tissue for its studies. It uses no animals for any of its work.

'We have an absolute policy on animals', the company has said. 'We believe that if you are developing drugs for humans, then you should be concentrating on human rather than animal biology.'

The policy seems to be paying off. It now employs 45 scientists and is in the process of raising another £8.5 million of City money.

Pharmagene's clients are 10 drug companies, including some of the world's largest. On behalf of these firms, it assesses the usefulness and safety of new compounds, with tests on human tissue being an important part of the screening.

Its source of tissues are about 10 hospitals throughout the UK. Peterborough District Hospital is an important supplier, as are a number of brain and eye banks. While all types of tissue - healthy and unhealthy - are valuable, none is more so than human liver, the organ that plays a key role in determining the body's response to drugs.

Pharmagene is adamant that it will conduct no animal experiments of its own and is keen to see an end to all 'unnecessary' vivisection, it recognises that the work it does on behalf of its drug company clients is early-stage screening. The most promising compounds will go on to be tried on animals - a process Pharmagene is prepared to endorse.

Although anti-vivisectionists will be disheartened by this stance, Pharmagene have at least demonstrated that, where other testing companies resort to animal experiments, it can do the same work without the cruelty - and produce results that are actually applicable to human patients.

Donating tissue after your death
If you live within a 100 mile radius of Peterborough District Hospital and want to leave your body for medical research, contact the PDH to obtain consent forms.

Make sure your GP is informed in writing and that your family or closest friends are clear about your wishes. You might also want carry details of your intentions - complete with contact info for your GP and the PDU - in your purse/wallet. This is in case of a sudden, life-threatening accident. Be sure to state whether you want any of your organs or other tissues used for transplantation.

Write to: Tissue Bank Manager, Histopathology Department. Peterborough District Hospital, Thorpe Road, Peterborough, PE3 6DA

For people living further afield there is at present little in the way of an infrastructure to retrieve, safely store and distribute tissues for research. However, because the situation is fast evolving, potential donors should contact Animal Aid to see if there are recent developments.

Some people donate their bodies after death for use by trainee doctors. It is important to appreciate that if you give for this purpose - via HM Inspector of Anatomy - you will not be saving animal lives, since animals are not used for training doctors in this way.

Donating tissue when you go for an operation
Surgery often produces surplus tissue that can be used for research. This might be biopsy material, muscle, pancreas, bone, skin, cartilage and so on. Some surgeons have links with regional tissue banks and will co-operate in passing on surplus. In other hospitals, no such links exist, or the local tissue bank has a limited storage capacity and is highly specialist with regard to tissue types. Ask what the situation is in the hospital in which you are to have your operation. Make clear your wishes.

The role of government
That there is no viable method throughout the UK for collecting human tissues for research is largely the fault of government and of the scientific establishment. Animal Aid has been pressing both since 1991 when we introduced the Humane Research Donor Card.

With half a million now in circulation, we believe we have clearly demonstrated the strength of public support for non-animal tissue research. But our card has no legal status, nor do we have the means to establish a national register of donors that hospitals and research organisations can plug into. That is the job of the Department of Health.

It is also for the DoH to support - financially and in other ways - a proper infrastructure for retrieving and distributing tissue for research. And it is for the scientific establishment - not least the major providers of research grants - to discourage any project that makes use of animal tissues when so much surplus human material is on tap. Such bodies include the Medical Research Council, The Wellcome Trust, the main cancer and heart research charities, and other members of the Association of Medical Research Charities.

In fact, in early 1999, the Medical Research Council was working on developing guidelines for the use of human tissues in research. These guidelines will be concerned, especially, with the way tissues are
collected, how consent is obtained, plus questions of access to materials by commercial companies. A framework of this sort is long overdue. A first draft was expected to go out for consultation in July 1999.

Overlapping the MRC project was a DOH exercise aimed at reviewing the whole question of human tissue use - though focusing on transplantation rather than research. It is looking to develop ethical standards for how such material is to be collected, stored and distributed. It will also tackle questions relating to patient consent, ownership and commercial access. The Department hope to have proposals ready by September 1999.

Written and researched by Andrew Tyler.