What actually happens when you leave your body to medical research?
Captain Sir Tom Moore became the nation’s hero during lockdown, after he raised £38.9million for
Captain Sir Tom Moore became the nation’s hero during lockdown, after he raised £38.9million for the NHS by walking 100 lengths of his garden. Yet perhaps his most selfless act has come in death. Official probate documents reveal that Captain Tom has chosen to donate his body to medical research after passing away aged 100 in February.
Captain Sir Tom joins the tens of thousands of people who decide to leave their body to science, with around 600 people opting to do so each year. According to the Human Tissue Authority (HTA), the body that regulates the use of body parts in the UK, donated bodies have three uses: anatomical examination – teaching students or healthcare professionals about the structure and function of the human body; research – scientific studies which aim to improve the understanding of the human body, and education and training – training healthcare professionals on surgical techniques. If specific consent is given, bodies may also be used for education of the public in a secure environment.
Maria-Paulina Socarras of the HTA explains it’s a common misconception that all donated bodies go towards research for certain conditions. “When you donate your whole body, it is used for anatomical training to educate doctors, dentists and surgeons. If you want to donate towards specific research, such as cancer, you can donate tissue through the organ donor register,” she says. A 2019 report by the HTA found that the most specimens used by medical schools were bones or skeletons, potted specimens and embalmed bodies.
What happens to your body once it is in the hands of the medical school largely depends on its condition; once donated, it can go to any department in the facility. Yet, it’s not as simple as just handing your corpse over. Body donation is strictly managed by the Human Tissue Act, which was established in 2004 as a response to the Alder Hey scandal. In the Nineties, it was discovered that Alder Hey Hospital in Liverpool was storing people’s organs – including those of children – without their family’s consent. Now, the HRA works hard to make sure that all bodies are “preserved with dignity” and are only used with the appropriate consent.
Unlike organ donation, which a next of kin can consent to when someone dies, only the individual can consent to having their body donated. The age limit is 17, people have to make their wishes known in writing, including whether they want their body to be kept indefinitely or for up to three years, and there has to be a witness present.
Policies vary between medical schools but Cardiff University operates under three stages of consent: the first doesn’t place any time restriction on how long the body can be held; the second gives consent for a maximum of three years; and the third gives consent for the body to be kept for three year with no parts retained. Cremation or burial of the body takes place once the anatomical examinations of the body are complete, usually within three years of the date of death. In some cases, when consent is given, parts of the body may be retained by medical schools for a longer period of time for further examination.
Funeral services are often arranged by the departments with all costs covered except that of the burial site. However, if you are looking to donate your body, a spokesperson from Cardiff University stresses the importance of discussing these arrangements with your family and friends beforehand.
The restrictions might be new but body donation isn’t: practising on cavadars dates back to the 1500s but it began to gain popularity again in the 1800s, when robbing graves for bodies became a lucrative business. In response, the UK passed the 1832 Anatomy Act. This meant that anatomists needed Home Office licences and were inspected; it also allowed people to legally donate their bodies to science for the first time.
However, even when you have gone through all the formalities, there is still a chance that your body might not be accepted by medical schools. This might be because the potential donor has an infectious or contagious disease such as HIV/AIDS, the body is extremely emaciated or obese, or the body has been autopsied or mutilated. Alzeimer’s disease is another reason, although vascular dementia is accepted. Due to coronavirus, many medical schools were unable to accept body donations, although now they are looking to get things moving again. “Numbers reduced this year, but they are slowly increasing as schools begin to accept bodies again,” says Socarras.
The spokesperson stresses that body donations are “invaluable” to training the next generation of medical professionals. These donations help students to understand the anatomical organisation of the body and give them essential surgical skills,” she said.