New law that requires licenses for stored tissue is encouraging researchers to consolidate their samples into central repositories
By Stephen Pincock | August 31, 2006
Britain's new Human Tissue Act, which comes into force Friday (September 1), has prompted some research institutions to begin consolidating their tissue samples into central repositories, a phenomenon that is likely to make life easier for researchers, scientists said today.
The law, which requires that establishments storing tissue for research must be licensed by the Human Tissue Authority (HTA), has prompted institutions to take stock of what tissue samples their researchers have stored, and in some cases bring them under a centralized administrative system, said Finbarr Cotter, professor of experimental haematology at Barts and The London Medical School.
"This is really about understanding what we have in our fridges and freezers," he told The Scientist. "It's starting to put a bit of order into what was not very ordered beforehand."
The new legislation was developed in response to events at Liverpool's Alder Hey Hospital and Bristol Royal Infirmary, where organs from deceased children were kept for research without parental consent.
It is designed to put consent at the center of all human tissue use, and will have widespread implications for organ donation and other areas of medicine, as well as research.
At Cotter's institution, for example, there were about 40 difference researchers who were storing tissue samples "in a rather ad hoc manner," he said. Now they've been consolidated into a single system that incorporates a bar code tracking system. "So that when one of my researchers goes, and leaves something in the freezer, it's not lost forever."
Cotter chose a financial analogy to explain the benefits. "It's moving us away from keeping our money under the mattress, toward putting it into a reputable bank," he said.
This kind of tissue consolidation seems to be a widespread phenomenon, said HTA director of communications Shaun Griffin. "We do anticipate that there will be consolidation of tissue stocks, which will improve security and access," he told The Scientist. "We think it can only help scientists, and that's the ultimate goal."
Other institutions that have consolidated their tissue samples include Cancer Research UK, the universities of Birmingham and Leicester, and Queens University Belfast. Funding bodies, like the Wellcome Trust and the Leukaemia Research Trust, have also put money into establishing better systems for managing tissue samples.
Herbie Newell, director of translational research at Cancer Research UK agreed that the new laws were a positive step for science. "We see this as being a very good thing," he told The Scientist. "It's going to formalize best practice across the field."
Cancer Research UK is working to establish a Web-based directory of all the cancer related tissue resources in the UK as a research tool, he said. The Human Tissue Act will help that endeavor by ensuring that "we can be confident that the governance issues around tissue collection will already be in place, because they're required before the HTA will issue a license."
Overall, researchers are now generally positive about the impact of the Human Tissue Act, Cotter said - a major shift, given that during the Act's drafting, scientists expressed grave concerns that it would hinder vital medical research due to a lack of clarity over issues relating to consent and anonymity of samples. After sustained lobbying, the wording of the law was changed in the House of Lords.
As of August 29, the HTA had received a total of 178 applications for licenses, of which 47 were for research purposes. The agency is expecting a last-minute rush of applications which will likely boost the final number, a spokeswoman said.
Links within this article
Human Tissue Authority
S. Pincock, "UK: optimism over new regulator," The Scientist, April 27, 2006.
S. Pincock, "UK law threatens research," The Scientist, January 27, 2004.
S. Pincock, "A better UK human tissue bill," The Scientist, March 28, 2005.