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UK Government ignoring scientific concerns over Human Tissue Bill

26 April 2004

The Royal Society today (Monday 26 April 2004) warned the UK Government that continuing to ignore the concerns of the scientific community over the proposed Human Tissue Bill could cut off vital avenues of research into understanding disease.

Lord May of Oxford, President of the Royal Society, outlined the Society’s concerns regarding the Bill to the Department of Health and is not satisfied that those concerns have been properly addressed in the redrafted version which is soon to be presented to the House of Lords.

Lord May said: "The scientific and medical communities have been making their concerns known since the start of this Bill but the Department of Health appears to be carrying on regardless. The Government must take action to ensure that these concerns are fully addressed."

Lord May added: "We wholeheartedly and unreservedly support the Human Tissue Bill’s aim of increasing public confidence over the collection and use of human tissues and organs, but the Government is oversimplifying the issues and making the need for consent too broad. It’s like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. No distinction is made between tissue samples taken during routine diagnostic tests at one end of the scale and the removal of organs during post-mortem at the other. The prohibitive amount of bureaucracy that could be generated by the need to obtain consent for individual tissue samples would impact on teaching and lead to reduced levels of vital research into understanding diseases such as cancer, heart disease, Parkinson’s and vCJD."

Lord May added: "There is not just an issue with the collection of tissue samples in the future, but also with the existing collections of stored tissues which provide an invaluable historical resource used in disease research. The current Bill states that these collections are exempt from the new legislation but will be addressed through codes of practice devised by the Human Tissue Authority after the Bill is passed. This additional guidance could place restrictions on the use of these collections but will not be subject to Parliamentary scrutiny and researchers will have no opportunity to comment, even if it is too restrictive."

Lord May said: "It would be impractical and impossible to predict in advance all of the possible research uses for samples, as required under the current Bill. The definition of consent needs to allow for the fact that the scope of research programmes inevitably changes over time."

For further information contact:

Press and Public Relations
The Royal Society, London
Tel: 020 7451 2508/2510 or 07811 320346