There is no question that medicines for human use are best developed using fresh human tissues and cells; an invaluable resource for biomedical research and a precious gift to help others in the future.
Tissues which are removed during the course of surgery (such as tumour removal) or diagnosis (for example a biopsy) pass to the pathology department, where part of the removed tissue is used for diagnosis. The rest is usually incinerated as ‘waste’, as is skin removed during cosmetic surgery, or placenta after giving birth.
If you are having an operation or biopsy, or expecting a baby, please consider letting the surgeon or nurse know that you would like your surplus tissues to be used for research. Many hospitals have ‘biobanks’ where such valuable tissues can be stored until needed by a medical researcher.
Organ donation directly saves thousands of lives each year, but if for some reason your organs are unsuitable for transplant, your next of kin may be asked to donate your organs to medical research, where they may still play an enormously useful role. Please ensure your relatives and close friends know that you would be happy for your organs to be used in this way. Some further information is available here. The donor’s remains will be returned to the family as soon as possible, usually a matter of hours.
Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases occur in humans and it is in human tissue that we will find the answers to these diseases – Dr John Xuereb, Director of the Cambridge Brain Bank and Wolfson Brain Imaging Centre
Some organs & tissues, such as the brain, are not removed for transplant but may be extremely valuable to medical researchers. Many brain banks are particularly in need to brains from donors who do not suffer from a neurological disease, so that they may compare healthy and diseased brains & so understand the differences better. If you would be willing to donate your brain, please register with a brain bank and ensure that your relatives are aware of your wishes, as they will also be asked for their permission. Further information about brain banks, as well as an eye bank, is available here. The donor’s remains will be returned to the family as soon as possible, usually within hours.
Whole body donation is a generous and extremely important gift which may enable tissues which would otherwise not be available to researchers (such as nerves or bone) to be obtained, and will certainly enable trainee doctors and surgeons, as well as surgeons developing and training others in the use of advanced new surgical techniques to develop life-saving skills. There is simply no substitute for this kind of training, but sadly, there are only about 600 bodies donated annually between all the different medical schools. The medical school will arrange a cremation or burial, which the family may wish to attend, although this may not be for up to a year after the donation has taken place. Many medical schools also organise annual services of remembrance in order to recognise and thank donors & their families.
If you would like to donate your body, please
Further information, including contact details for medical schools throughout the UK, is available from the Human Tissue Authority website or by calling 020 7269 1988. Their booklet (including a sample consent form) is available here. Two inspirational stories about body donation may be read here and here along with a short film.