Public distrust has lead to a drastic drop in post-mortem organ donations, threatening crucial research, say UK pathologists
New Scientist magazine
1905 GMT, 31 January 2001
The scandal over retained organs at Alder Hey hospital in Liverpool, UK, has caused a drastic reduction in post-mortem organ donations, threatening crucial research, say British pathologists.
An official inquiry into the scandal was published on Tuesday. Former Alder Hey pathologist Dick van Velzen "systematically ordered the unethical and illegal stripping of every organ from every child who had a post mortem," said Alan Milburn, the government's health secretary.
Those parents who had consented to post mortem examinations were not told that their child's organs might be retained. New guidelines for clinicians and pathologists drawn up last year state that relatives must receive full information about what an autopsy might involve before they are asked to give their consent.
But following the Alder Hey scandal, relatives are far less likely to give that consent, says Nicholas Wright, president of the Pathological Society of Great Britain and Ireland.
Last year, there were just 3,500 autopsies in Britain. "That represents a drastic reduction in numbers. We are very worried about the implications for research," he told New Scientist.
For example, Wright says, research on autopsied brains from sufferers of multiple sclerosis or on defective hearts from babies are vital for developing new treatments.
Organ stores "invaluable"
The Royal Liverpool Children's Inquiry found that 104,300 organs, foetuses and body parts are in storage in British hospitals. But the real figure may be much higher. Many hospitals did not keep accurate records and some did not provide figures, the inquiry found.
The validity of retaining large numbers of certain organs has been questioned, particularly at Alder Hey. But organ stores can become useful "in ways we can't predict," says Michael Wilks, chairman of the British Medical Association's Medical Ethics Committee. Doctors should make relatives aware of this, he says.
Many pathologists are worried that many relatives are bracketing all pathologists with van Velzen, and so threatening the future of "invaluable" organ banks, says Wright.
"For example, if you are investigating a rare congenital abnormality of the heart, being able to study organs from banks of neonatal hearts is very important," he says.
Wright fears that new treatments currently in development, such as gene therapies for certain cancers, will not be go forward if autopsies of dead patients are not permitted. "Without an autopsy, you won't be able to know what's going on."
Donated organs are also important for teaching medical students. "It is far easier to teach students about cancer of the lung if you can use real specimens," Wright says.
See also: Report of the Royal Liverpool Children's Inquiry
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From New Scientist
magazine, 31 January 2001.