Humane Research: Gift of Life - The Humane Research Donor Card
When, in February 1991, we launched our Humane Research Donor Card (HRDC) - a far-sighted initiative to make better use of surplus human tissue for medical research as an alternative to animal experiments - the public responded with massive enthusiasm: there are now 350,000 carriers of the card.
Prominent scientists also welcomed the project as being humane and scientifically rational, although there was some, often spiteful, resistance from those with a career investment in abusing animals. The HRDC has continued to grow and, just recently, there have been some important, even remarkable, developments that entirely vindicate Animal Aid's stance.
In June last year, the University of Nottingham opened a new tissue culture facility, costing £120,000, and declared that it "will mean a move away from traditional animal testing ... to the more ethically - sound use of donated human cells and tissue". The University is so enthusiastic that it refers to the 'Dawn of a New Age'.
The Medical Research Council, which welcomed the launch of the HRDC, has announced that it is seriously considering how best to expand its range of tissue banks.
In its 1995 report, Humane tissue: Ethical and Legal Issues, the influential Nuffield Council on Bioethics, "recommend that the Department of Health establish a central register of tissue banks approved for supplying tissue for medical treatment and for research", in order to "maximise the efficiency of human supply". One reason for improving the availability of human material, the Nuffield Council explains, is because, "The use of human tissue for research is also seen as a way of reducing the use of animals in research".
There are reports of a major new tissue bank at the University of Leicester. The idea is that bodies will be provided by hospitals, mainly from brain-dead donors who have previously given consent for the use of their remains in medical research. They are expected to be dissected either at the donor hospital or at Leicester. According to John Moretti, spokesman for the International Institute for the Advancement of Medicine which is setting up the facility, "I don't think there is anyone in the UK providing the same service as we are, actively going around obtaining tissues to help universities and pharmaceutical companies do research". The group stress that, in line with the Nuffield Council on Bioethics' recommendations, there will be no payment to donors, except to cover costs of recovering, processing and dispatching tissue.
Millions of animals could be saved
Worldwide, millions of animals die as human surrogates. Yet many of these creatures could be saved, and more reliable results achieved, if only scientists switched to human tissue for their experiments. The tissues can be obtained from healthy volunteers, biopsies, surgical operations and postmortem samples, and can substitute for animals in two ways: firstly, by replacing the substantial but unknown number of animals killed simply to provide parts of their bodies for research; and secondly, by replacing many live animal experiments, for instance in medical research and testing.
It is true that some tissues must be used quickly after they are removed from the body, otherwise they lose the characteristics that were present in the living person. But other tissues can can stored at very low temperatures until they are needed.
Apart from saving animals, another major advantage of human tissue research is that results are directly relevant to people: there are no worries about misleading predictions that bedevil animal experiments. As one researcher explains, "marked species differences ...provide the impetus for using human tissue".