Whether you’re donating blood, plasma, semen, or tissue, haven’t you ever wondered what exactly happens to your sample when it’s being used for “medical research?” A recent study conducted at Michigan State University has revealed that while most donors are more than willing to donate their specimen for research purposes, that willingness often comes into question when certain types of research purposes are mentioned.

"We really wanted to document the concerns people have that may affect their desire to donate," Tom Tomlinson, director of MSU's Center for Ethics and Humanities, said in a statement. "Biobanks are becoming more and more important to health research, so it's important to understand these concerns and how transparent these facilities need to be in the research they support."

Tomlinson and his colleagues surveyed around 1,600 adults in the United States, revealing that 68 percent were willing to donate as long as they used the blanket consent method. The blanket consent method means the donor gives one-time permission to use their coded specimen for future research purposes. Each donor’s wiliness to donate was based on a 6-point scale (strongly agree to strongly disagree), which they used to rate seven research scenarios. Some donors’ willingness to donate was compromised when they were told what their sample will be used for.

Over half of the donors refused to give blanket consent when they found out their sample could be used for research involving abortion, and 45 percent did the same when they found out it might be used for commercial purposes. The percentage of donor permission also dropped when research purposes included vaccines and embryonic stem cells. However, 75 percent of survey respondents said they would give blank consent if their sample was being used to create stem cells that will be used to grow tissues or organs.

"These scenarios present people with a moral question where they have to balance their competing goals," Tomlinson said. "They want to contribute to medical progress, but on the other hand, there are certain things they don't want to be involved in. In the end, the recruitment of donors is essential to the success of biobanks. As research efforts continue to grow, getting more people to donate becomes even more important. These concerns have to be addressed in order to control possible effects on donation rates in the future."

MSU researchers hope their study will sway biobanks into rethinking how they get consent and how transparent they are about what donor samples will be used for. One method for staying transparent while enticing donor consent could be highlighting possible health benefits associated with donating blood. Not only are blood donors tested for HIV, hepatitis, and other disease upon giving their donation, but research has also shown that donating blood can lower our risk for heart disease by limiting blood viscosity.

Source: De Vries R, Ryan K, Kim H, Lehpamer N, Kim S, Tomlinsons T. Moral Concerns and the Willingness to Donate to a Research Biobank. JAMA. 2015.