Human tissue: ethics, etiquette & the rules of consent

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen a sharp rise in health and medical research as we strive for greater understanding of the virus and seek new treatments.

The pandemic has also meant NSW Health Pathology is receiving a greater number of requests to access human tissue samples collected for diagnostic testing. Using human tissue samples can be a vital part of ground-breaking research, but it’s essential for all researchers to be aware of and adhere to the ethical and legal constraints in Australia governing how samples held by our laboratories can be used.

The primary purpose of taking human tissue samples within NSW Health Pathology is to inform clinical care. However, with patient consent, we can also make it available in support of ethically-approved health and medical research.

It is important for all researchers to know when patient consent is required for the use of human tissue specimens for reasons outside of primary clinical care.

The Human Tissue Act 1983 specifies that where tissue is removed from the body of a person during medical, dental or surgical treatment carried out in the interests of the health of the person, the tissue can only be used for therapeutic, medical or scientific purposes, such as research, with the consent of that person given in writing for the intended use. In addition, use or transfer of genetic samples or patient data associated with other types of tissue must comply with the requirements in the Health Records and Information Privacy Act 2002.

Any breach of these Acts comes with serious consequences, not to mention loss of reputation and standing as a researcher or health professional.

NSW Health Pathology can assist researchers seeking human tissue samples

If you are a researcher or research institution seeking access to human tissue samples or associated patient data, you can contact NSW Health Pathology’s dedicated research service coordinators and research governance office.

Our staff can assist with all requests for release of human tissue for ethically-approved health or medical research and navigate the way through the associated regulation. They will conduct essential checks to ensure that any research team/project has met all legislative and ethical requirements. 

NSWHP holds the samples it takes from all patients in trust and it is important that we do not release any tissue from our organisation for research purposes without these checks being undertaken.

Sticking to the right path when utilising human tissue samples

The following graphic will help guide you in the process of seeking access to human tissue samples. (PDF 169.9KB)

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