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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 23 June 2010

[Mr Joe Benton in the Chair]

Human Tissue (Availability)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Stephen Crabb.)

9.30 am

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): The issue of making samples of human tissue available for use in medical research may seem obscure at first glance, but it has a huge impact on some of the other issues that we commonly discuss in this place, including the development of new medical treatments for common diseases, the safety of patients treated by the NHS, and the ever-controversial matter of scientific experimentation on animals. In today's debate I shall discuss how increasing the availability of human tissue to the research community would be to our advantage, and shall suggest ways in which the Department of Health might help to make tissue samples more accessible.

I first became aware of the issue because of life sciences activity in my constituency. Glasgow is unfortunate in having one of the highest cancer rates in Europe, but that means that it has become a world-class centre of excellence. The Beatson research centre is based in my constituency, just outside Glasgow, and a new translational research centre is due to be built alongside it shortly.

The area is also a hub for other companies that work in the life sciences industry, such as the biomedical research company Biopta, which is based in Bearsden in East Dunbartonshire. Biopta uses fresh samples of human tissue to test new medical treatments before they get to the stage of clinical trial. Those tissue samples have been removed from patients during surgery and the parts not needed for diagnosis or therapy have been donated, with the patient's consent, for use by researchers. Tissue is therefore not removed for the purposes of research; it is removed during surgical procedures anyway, most often to help in making a diagnosis, such as during a biopsy. A sample is taken, and in some cases an entire lump may be removed, but usually only a tiny amount of it is needed on a slide for diagnosis by examination under a microscope, and the rest is either incinerated or stored for use by researchers.

When I visited Biopta, the chief executive, David Bunton, explained the benefits of testing with human tissue. First, testing new treatments on tissue samples can help to protect those who volunteer as subjects in clinical trials from harm. I am sure that hon. Members have all seen adverts in newspapers, or perhaps in a doctor's surgery or hospital, looking for people to give their time to participate in a study of a new medical treatment. Sadly, we have also all heard of clinical trials that have gone badly wrong, when people have become seriously ill; some have even died. By testing treatments on human tissue samples first, it is possible to rule out some potentially harmful treatments before they are tried out on human subjects in clinical trials.

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Although there is no guarantee that a treatment that is tested on tissue samples and appears safe will not cause harm to a living person, currently the various techniques involving live tissue samples are the closest we can get to simulating the use of a particular treatment on a real patient. Basically all drugs are tested on human cell lines, but not all of them are tested on human tissue, whose reactions are closer to the behaviour of normal cells in the human body than cell lines in an artificial environment.

As well as posing a potential risk to the health of subjects, unsuccessful clinical trials also cost a great deal in time and resources. One of the biggest barriers to the development of new treatments for diseases is the huge costs and the financial risk involved in trialling treatments, as there is always a risk that they will not work. Many drug companies expect that nine out of 10 drugs taken forward will not reach production. That risk can never be eliminated, but the use of live human tissue samples can rule out some unsuccessful drugs before trials are carried out. That can reduce the costs.

Another reason for using human tissue samples is that it may reduce the need for experiments on animals. I shall touch only briefly on that point, but it is an issue on which many Members, like many of our constituents, feel strongly; other hon. Members may want to speak further about it. I accept that some testing on animals is still necessary for medical research, but of course we should pursue alternatives wherever possible, in line with the approach of replacement, refinement and reduction. Despite the benefits of tissue research that I have explained, vast quantities of residual surgical tissue are regularly incinerated as clinical waste. As a result, there is a shortage of human tissue samples for research.

Many of the diseases for which treatments could be developed by such research are common, and all hon. Members present for the debate will know someone who has suffered from them. Breast Cancer Campaign reports:

In this country one woman in nine will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime and 1,000 women and seven men die from it every month.

Another common disease for which no cure has been found is Parkinson's disease, with which someone in the UK is diagnosed every hour. Researchers in the UK are looking to develop new drugs that could slow down, stop or even reverse the condition, and perhaps find a cure. According to Parkinson's UK:

If tissue samples are to be used for research purposes, a number of things need to happen. First, the tissue donor needs to consent to the use of their tissue for the purpose of research. Secondly, tissue needs to be stored
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in an appropriate condition, and thirdly there needs to be a mechanism for making researchers aware of what tissue is stored where. As to consent, clearly it is important that patients should have the final say in how their tissue is used, but the current process for gathering consent is clearly not working. In a submission to the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Human Tissues Working Party, which includes a range of groups including the Safer Medicines Trust and Biopta, wrote:

However, the submission continues:

Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): The hon. Lady has hit on the key point: often people are just not asked. As with cord blood, for example, I think that if the uses of the tissue and the benefits that can come from it are explained, people will say yes. However, people will generally be asked at a vulnerable time and may be nervous about what is happening and why, and that is an issue that should be addressed.

Jo Swinson: The hon. Gentleman is right. Often people are not asked, and the timing of the request is a question to be considered.

There is little public awareness of the need for live tissue, and it is fair to say that most people would never think of proactively offering to donate tissue samples for research. As the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) has said, that is not uppermost in the mind of someone approaching a surgical procedure. Therefore, we need to ensure that patients are routinely asked whether they would like to donate.

Currently, it is up to each hospital trust to design and implement its own policy for gaining consent. Before a patient undergoes surgery, he or she will always be asked to sign a consent form giving the hospital the right to operate, and that would also seem like a good opportunity to ask for consent for the use of their tissue for research. Indeed, many hospitals do that, although many more do not.

Last year, I submitted a freedom of information request to every acute trust in England and every health board in Scotland, asking for a copy of their surgical consent forms. I found that, in England, 39% of hospital trusts have an option on their consent form for patients to donate tissue for research but that 61% do not. In Scotland, the situation is even worse-29% of health boards include it on their consent form, but 71% do not. Of those trusts that do not include the option on the form, some said that they had a policy of requiring their staff to ask patients verbally for consent; but others told me that they do not take tissue for research purposes at all.

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The situation in Scotland is slightly different. Although the Human Tissue Act 2004 applies in Scotland, the Human Tissue Authority is responsible north of the border only for transplantation, not for regulating the use of tissue for research. However, the National Research Ethics Service is UK-wide, so I see no reason why procedures for gaining consent for the use of tissue cannot also be UK-wide; we would then have some consistency for those having operations, whether they live in Dundee or Doncaster.

The Human Tissues Working Party writes:

Although no nationwide figures are available, research by the NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde health board shows that only 5% of surgical patients in the area were being given the option to donate residual tissue. One way to increase that figure would be to standardise surgical consent forms across the country, ensuring that the option is always included. I discussed the idea last year with representatives from the Human Tissue Authority, but they argued that researchers and foundation trusts were likely to resent attempts to impose such a one-size-fits-all solution, as they all have different research systems in place.

Perhaps more importantly, the widespread view, articulated by the hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside, seems to be that when patients are about to undergo surgery, they may not be in the best frame of mind to make decisions about how their tissue might be used. They receive a great deal of information at this stage, including legal and medical information, which may be overwhelming; on top of that, they will understandably be nervous about undergoing surgery. Surgeons may also find it inconvenient. A surgeon at one London hospital told the Safer Medicines Trust that surgeons simply do not have time to explain to patients the benefits of donating tissue and simply tick the "no" box on behalf of their patients.

The Greater Glasgow and Clyde health board is taking a great interest in the matter, thanks particularly to the efforts of Professor Barry Gusterson at the university of Glasgow. It says that pre-surgical assessments could present the best opportunity to discuss the question with patients, and is now looking to make that standard practice. There is the potential, with IT developments, for patients checking in for pre-surgical appointments to be given information about tissue donation, and the opportunity at that point to click a box on the screen. However, we need to ensure that patients have information about what will happen to their tissue if they give consent. The health board has produced an information leaflet for patients that explains how and why tissue is stored by researchers, and for how long. That is a brilliant example of how information could be disseminated. I shall send the Minister a copy, and suggest that she share it with hospital trusts in England, Wales and Northern Ireland as an example of best practice.

The Scottish Government are working with schools to promote the benefits of joining the NHS donor register, giving information to young people about how the register works, and offering real life stories about people who have received transplants and the new lease
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of life that they now enjoy. A similar scheme could be developed for use throughout the UK to make people more aware of the research need for surplus surgical tissues.

In the longer term, we might even aim to reach the stage where hospital staff and the public are so well-informed about the need for surplus tissue for medical research that a system of presumed consent could be implemented. That would, of course, need to follow a national education campaign to explain the benefits of research on human tissue.

The debate about whether consent for organ donation should be opt-in or opt-out has been the subject of heated debate in this place. Indeed, my friend Dr Evan Harris, the former Member for Oxford West and Abingdon, introduced a Bill that would have brought in a system of presumed consent; under it, people would have to have opted out of it if they did not want to donate organs. In that case, of course, the debate was about organs for transplant rather than tissue for research purposes, which is slightly different, but we are still talking about measures that could save people's lives. Personally, I would favour an opt-out system for tissue taken from live patients, as it would be less controversial; certainly, taking tissue post-mortem is more complex. I would welcome the Minister's views on whether we could review the Human Tissue Act 2004, and whether the opt-in, opt-out question for live tissue samples might be considered.

The Department of Health carried out a review last year of the impact that human tissue legislation has had on the research community. It found that:

That, of course, was not the intention of the legislation. The drive to ensure ethical practice is commendable-indeed, it is vital. However, 68% of respondents believed that it has made human tissues harder to obtain, and 61% believe that it has led to the disposal of potentially valuable tissue. Clearly, the use of human tissue for research must be subject to careful regulation to ensure a high standard of ethical practice, but that evidence suggests that the legislation may need to be reviewed.

Once consent has been granted and tissue has been removed, the question is how and where it should be stored in order to ensure that it is available for use by researchers wherever it is needed. Most tissue is stored in hospitals, and it can be difficult for researchers to find out what tissue is stored in which hospitals in various parts of the country, so that they can gain access to types of tissue that they need. There are more than 100 tissue banks in the UK, some publicly funded and some private, but scientists' access to the tissue is seriously affected by its location-and their personal contacts-and some institutions are more willing than others to share their tissue stores.

Breast Cancer Campaign is in the process of setting up the first national tissue bank for breast cancer researchers in the UK. It will have a policy of equal access for researchers throughout the country. It is being funded through voluntary donations. As well as national tissue banks, there is another option for improving access to tissue samples; creating a database or online system would allow researchers to see what tissue there is and where, and to make requests for it. The national cancer
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biobanking organisation onCore has tried to set up a virtual network of tissue banks to share tissue with researchers across the country, but it has had limited success.

I maintain that the problem is not one of funding. Primarily, we need better co-ordination and implementation of the processes that need to be implemented, as well as greater awareness among health professionals and members of the public about the importance of human tissue research. Far too often, valuable tissue is incinerated rather than being collected for research purposes, even though collection is not difficult. It is a matter of spreading best practice, giving information to hospital staff and patients and making the gaining of consent part of the routine of surgical operations. When tissue is collected, it is not being made sufficiently accessible to researchers. I hope that the Minister will tell us whether the Department of Health is able to facilitate greater co-ordination across the NHS, and among academic and research institutions, to improve the sharing of information and clinical material such as human tissue.

I am sure that all hon. Members will agree that we should be doing all we can to speed up research into treatments for the diseases that I have mentioned, and the many others that I have not. I look forward to the Minister's response.

9.47 am

Mr Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): I attended this debate not intending to speak, but I congratulate the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) on securing it.

I wish to talk about the terrible condition of Parkinson's disease. Yesterday evening I was making my way home and called my wife, as I routinely do. She informed me that a family member and good friend of ours, who is on holiday in Malta, had suffered an aneurysm, and is on a life-support machine until her family can get to her later today. I have known the lady for many years, and I know that she wants her organs to be donated to medical science, but tragically, she is hundreds of miles away from her family. That quickly brought home to me the fact that we need more research, and that more organs need to be donated to allow research to go ahead.

Parkinson's disease, as we all know, is a terrible, debilitating condition. Every hour, someone in this country is told that they have Parkinson's, and, if anything, the situation is getting worse. Parkinson's UK is an admirable organisation doing its utmost to battle against the condition. Since 1969, it has spent over £45 million on groundbreaking research. At the start of the year, it was supporting 90 research projects worth over £15 million. Parkinson's UK believes that it should be made easier for researchers to gain access to donated organs.

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