Thousands of brains were kept for research without the consent of grieving relatives

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The widow of a mentally ill man whose brain was removed without her consent after his suicide described her three-year battle to find the truth yesterday as a report revealed that tens of thousands of brains had been taken without the knowledge of relatives for research and teaching since the 1960s.

The widow of a mentally ill man whose brain was removed without her consent after his suicide described her three-year battle to find the truth yesterday as a report revealed that tens of thousands of brains had been taken without the knowledge of relatives for research and teaching since the 1960s.

On the day the Government announced a new law to tighten control over the taking of organs, Elaine Isaacs launched a tirade of criticism at the medical system that had taken her husband's brain for research, ignoring her wishes and her Jewish faith, at the publication of an inquiry report into the case.

She said: "I am very, very angry about being here today. I have had to fight so hard to get this whole situation recognised. Our rights have been taken away, my husband's and thousands of others, it seems."

The Isaacs report, by Jeremy Metters, her majesty's inspector of anatomy, found that of the 30,000 brains that remained in storage, more than 20,000 were retained without consent.

The inquiry was triggered by Mrs Isaacs' chance discovery in April 2000, 13 years after Cyril Isaacs' suicide, that his brain had been kept by Manchester University. A system was set up to supply brains from mortuaries for a research programme led by Professor Bill Deakin and doctors Alan Cross and Paul Slater.

Bryan North, a solicitor and the coroner for North Manchester, allegedly helped to tip off the doctors when a brain was available. They would arrange to have it collected. The mortician at the North Manchester General Hospital was paid a £10 tip per brain.

Between 1985 and 1997, 311 brains were collected for the programme, of which 225 came from coroners' cases, including Mr Isaacs'. Dr Metters said that under the Human Tissue Act 1961, coroners could do post-mortem examinations to establish the cause of death but must obtain relatives' consent to retain the organs.

"The relatives were not told and consent was not asked," he said. Mr North told the inquiry he was unaware of this system, but Dr Metters said: "I find that hard to believe." He added that Professor Deakin had questions to answer on the way the research project was set up. Asked if prosecutions could follow his report, he said that there were no penalties under the Human Tissue Act and that the pathologist who removed the brains, as well as the morticians who identified the bodies, thought ethical approval had been obtained. "I believe them," he said.

Other cases that came to light in the inquiry revealed that brains had been kept without consent elsewhere. In all, 14 of 17 centres that stored brains had used them for research and getting consent was "never routine". Dr Metters added that payments for brains used for teaching had been made for many years.

A spokeswoman for the University of Manchester said it very much regretted the events that happened "some considerable time ago, in an altogether different climate, with different practices and standards". She added: "Appropriate action has been taken in respect of two named individuals."

The Isaacs report makes 32 recommendations. Sir Liam Donaldson, the Government's chief medical officer, apologised to the Isaacsand pledged that the practices described in the report "belong to the past". David Lammy, a Health minister, told the Commons the law on human organs and tissue was "outmoded and inadequate" and new legislation would be introduced "when parliamentary time allows".

The Retained Organs Commission has set up a helpline for people concerned that relatives' brains or other organs could have been taken without consent, on 0800-838 909.

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