Case study: Accessing human tissue through a not-for-profit organisation

Professor Maria Belvisi, Imperial College London

Professor Maria Belvisi is the head of the Respiratory Pharmacology group at the National Heart and Lung Institute, Imperial College London.

Maria is an internationally recognised expert and her research is focused on the cellular and molecular mechanisms of asthma, COPD and chronic cough. In 2010, along with Dr Mark Birrell, she formed IR Pharma; a preclinical respiratory drug discovery organisation which is part of the Imperial Innovations portfolio of companies.

There are a variety of animal models for studying conditions such as asthma and COPD, but none fully recreate the human condition. In order to develop effective new therapies it is essential to investigate mechanisms in human tissue.

We require large pieces of lung with the vagus nerve intact, but found that these are not easily accessible, posing a significant barrier to using this tissue for our experiments. We have taken two approaches to try to overcome this. Firstly, we purchase whole lung from a not-for-profit organisation, the International Institute for the Advancement of Medicine (IIAM), based in the US. IIAM work alongside not-for-profit organ procurement organisations (OPOs) to distribute human organs and tissue to researchers around the world. 

The non-profit status means that we find it more financially viable to bring in tissue from the US than purchase from alternative commercial sources.  We are able to make exact specification requirements regarding the tissue including disease status, age, and the time off a ventilator.

“Using human tissue has decreased animal use in our lab by 23%.”

In addition to this, in the UK we have registered to receive organ tissue with approval obtained for research use that is removed for transplantation, but is then rejected for that purpose - any researcher can request to receive this tissue. Each year there are currently approximately 400 lung samples where the tissue is not suitable for transplant but which could be used for research. However, due to the lack of infrastructure and information around access and distribution of samples, this is not utilised. Through an NC3Rs Infrastructure for Impact award, we are currently looking at ways to implement an OPO-style approach in this country, to ensure more human tissue can be made available for research purposes.

The main advice I would give to someone who wanted to access human tissue for research is to be flexible. Access is by far the most important barrier to overcome, but once you are able to access tissue it may become available at short notice and unsociable hours. For my researchers, when tissue becomes available then utilising this is a priority . In addition we share any tissue we receive with other labs to maximise the scientific and 3Rs benefit of any tissue we are given.

Using human tissue has had a huge impact on our research. We have seen an increase in our publication rate in translational respiratory journals since adopting human tissue approaches. This is in contrast to those that suggest publishing data generated in human tissue is difficult.

“We have seen an increase in our publication rate since adopting human tissue approaches.”

Additionally, our work is now more translatable to a clinical setting, and my lab was involved in generating key data sets during the development of tiotropium bromide (Spiriva), a long-acting muscarinic antagonist that is used in the treatment of COPD. 

3Rs impact statement

  • Replacing some animal work with human tissue experiments has enabled us to reduce our annual animal usage by 23%.
  • Demonstrating mechanistic proof of concept in relevant human vagal tissue samples has enabled the progression of new drugs for cough into clinical trials, and potentially reduced the need for some studies in animals.
  • We have stopped using some animal models because data from human tissue has indicated that certain mechanisms do not operate in rodents.

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