Fears on tissue bill 'are ignored'

April 30, 2004

Fears were growing this week that the new human tissues bill could strangle important medical research. The Royal Society has warned that the government is unlikely to compromise on the new "sledgehammer" legislation.

The bill, which is expected to reach the Lords in a matter of weeks, outlaws research using any human tissue, including urine and blood samples, without explicit prior consent.

Following a series of meetings between the Department of Health and key figures in the science community, there had been widespread speculation that the bill would be rewritten to avoid impeding research unnecessarily.

But a recent letter from the DoH to the Royal Society suggests that a major redraft of the bill is now unlikely.

Lord May, president of the Royal Society, said: "The scientific and medical communities have been making their concerns known since the beginning of this bill but the (DoH) seems to be carrying on regardless."

The bill is designed to provide stricter controls for research in the wake of the organ-removal scandals at Alder Hey Hospital in Liverpool and the Bristol Royal Infirmary.

But scientists are angry that it makes no distinction between material removed during a postmortem, and tissue samples taken from living patients during routine diagnostic tests. Its definition of human tissue, based on the presence of human cells, means it covers not only the 3 million solid tissue specimens taken by the National Health Service each year, but also blood samples, urine, faeces and sputum.

Lord May said: "It is like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut." He added that the need for consent for individual tissue samples would lead to a major reduction in research in areas such as cancer, heart disease and Parkinson's disease.

Peter Furness, a pathologist at Leicester General Hospital, said it was essential that the bill's requirements were relaxed. He said: "The crazy thing about this bill is that a researcher can commit a criminal offence when no one has been harmed and when the patient hasn't even complained.

The vast majority of patients regard these tissue samples as surgical waste they have discarded."

Professor Furness said that the government had been giving private reassurances that it understood scientists' worries. But he said: "During the so-called consultation exercise (before the bill was published) last year, we explained all our concerns and they were ignored. So I am cynical about the government's reassurances."

A spokesman for the Wellcome Trust, which has campaigned for a rewording of the bill, declined to back Lord May's outburst. He said: "We have made our points to the government and now we are waiting to see what happens."

anna.fazackerley@thes.co.uk

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