Helping animals – and people – after we die

Leaving our bodies to medical science is something I’m sure many of us are keen to do in the interests of saving animal lives and helping to promote human-based research, but have somehow never got round to doing. For me at least, the current pandemic has been a spur to action. Not just because it has reminded me of my own mortality, but because, when my turn to get the jab arrives, my gratitude to the NHS will be tempered with guilt over the many animals who will have suffered and perished over the course of its development.

There are many ways to do this, one of which is to register as an organ donor. As of last year, we have an “opt-out” system in England, meaning that all adults agree to become potential organ donors when they die unless they have made a statement to the contrary. Either way, you can still register your decision at https://www.organdonation.nhs.uk/, and it is important to do so as you can then elect to donate all your organs (not just those suitable for transplantation) and your tissues as well, all of which helps to reduce reliance on animals, whether as a source of biological material or a tool for research. Brain banks, too, need non-diseased brains for use in the study of neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s which – despite the invasive experiments conducted on monkey subjects – are unique to humans. And you can even donate surplus tissue during your lifetime, such as bone tissue during hip replacement surgery or amniotic membrane during an elective caesarean section.

Finally, you can bequeath your whole body, for purposes defined under the Human Tissue Act 2004 as the “anatomical examination, education or training relating to human health and research in connection with disorders, or the functioning of the human body”. Although you can state this in your will, it is not enough on its own: written consent must be given prior to death, so you need to obtain a consent form from your local medical school and keep a copy with your will. To find out where your nearest one is, you can simply visit the Human Tissue Authority website (https://www.hta.gov.uk/donating-your-body) and type in your postcode. This site is a mine of useful information on all the above, and should answer most of the queries you are likely to have.

I should point out here that body donations are not being accepted under current Covid restrictions, but the demand will still be there – perhaps even more so – when they are lifted, so it’s a good idea to start thinking about it now. And, as with organ and tissue donation, it is vital to make sure your next of kin or close friends are aware of your wishes. Even once you have registered as a donor, the bequest office will not act unless instructed to do so by the person with responsibility for your body, so they will need to know who to contact. Talking this through can be a useful exercise in itself, helping those close to you to understand the reasons for your decision and perhaps even consider following your example. I have read several interviews with donors who have found it a comfort to be able to “give something back”, and that this has helped them come to terms with the prospect of death. For their relatives, it is still possible to have the ashes returned to them for burial after cremation, and interdenominational memorial services are held annually to thank donors and their families.

Hopefully we will see attitudes continue to change as more and more of us decide to take this step, and talk openly about a subject that has long suffered from something of a stigma, deriving partly perhaps from grisly tales of body snatchers from the dim and distant past. Covid has brought vividly before our eyes what modern medical science can do for us, and it is surely desirable to do whatever we can to help ensure that it is conducted with as much efficiency and humanity as possible.

Tissue donation: a proactive way to help save human and animal lives

Human tissueWe were recently asked how to go about leaving your body to medical science, and since this is a question often raised by those wanting to do something practical to help reduce reliance on animal subjects, it’s worth summarising the available information here.

There are various ways in which you can donate part or all of your body for the benefit of medical research.

Surplus tissues removed during surgery can be stored in hospital biobanks if you let the surgeon or nurse know in advance.

Organ donations save thousands of lives each year, but if your organs are unsuitable for transplant they can still play a valuable role in research.

Brain banks need both diseased and healthy brains to study Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases peculiar to humans.

Whole bodies are always needed by medical schools, whether for research purposes or to teach anatomy and surgical techniques. Under the Human Tissue Act 2004, consent for this must be given prior to death. A consent form can be obtained from your nearest medical school and a copy should be kept with your will. You should also inform your family, close friends and GP that you wish to donate your body. The medical school will arrange a cremation or burial, which the family may wish to attend, although this may not be for up to a year after the donation has taken place. Many medical schools also organise annual services of remembrance in order to recognise and thank donors and their families.

Further information, including contact details for medical schools throughout the UK, is available from the Human Tissue Authority website. Two inspirational stories about body donation can be read here and here.

Our thanks to Safer Medicines for these references.