Council wrestles with ethics of using human tissue

November 12, 1999

The ethical dilemmas surrounding the collection, storage and use of human tissue samples are to be tackled in a set of guidelines being drawn up by the Medical Research Council.

Draft proposals will be publicly debated after they are issued by the MRC on Wednesday for a five-month consultation period.

They have been put together by a working party of scientists and ethicists who have examined the potential problems and held discussions with professional bodies such as the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Surgeons.

The guidelines cover a broad range of human samples, from diseased tissue and whole organs to genetic material, that can be collected during routine operations or gathered specifically for scientific study.

Such samples are used in a wide range of research projects from fundamental work on understanding physical processes to developing new therapies for treating specific conditions.

Key issues include policing the use of publicly available materials by commercial organisations to develop new products; maintaining the confidentiality of the donor; and how consent for the collection of the material is gained.

The MRC hopes the guidelines will extend beyond the research council's institutions and researchers and be adopted by other organisations and individuals. The Department of Health has helped draft them and has had an observer present at the MRC working party's meetings.

An MRC spokeswoman said: "While we can't impose these guidelines on anyone, we hope that many people and organisations will ultimately adopt them."

However, Richard Nicholson, editor of the Bulletin of Medical Ethics, said:

"There's a real problem as to whether one is going to need, in the long term, additional legislation to give force to any code of practice."

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