Is There Still Life in the UK’s First Human Taphonomy Facility?
In 2019, we heard about the launch of a new UK-based human taphonomy facility for forensic research. Four years on, where is it?
Georgia Hulme | | 5 min read | Interview
It has been four years since we last spoke to Anna Williams, Professor of Forensic Science at the University of Central Lancashire, about the likelihood – and importance – of a Human Taphonomy Facility (HTF) opening up in the UK. For a quick refresher, a HTF is an outdoor facility where donated human cadavers can be observed and investigated for scientific research. The main benefit of such a site was that in-depth scientific experiments could be performed to determine the effects of certain human conditions on decomposition rates.
In 2019, the project appeared to be gaining traction and the initiative, led by Williams, was being discussed by universities and the Ministry of Defence (1). So, where are we now? We spoke with Williams to find out…
What’s the latest update?!
I’m afraid that there’s not much to tell. The COVID-19 pandemic halted progress – and due to personnel changes and different circumstances – not much has happened since. However, the team behind the project has not given up – and minor progress has been made behind the scenes.
Why is it now more important than ever that the UK has a human taphonomy facility?
The UK needs a HTF to catch up with advances that have been made in the understanding of decomposition processes – and the factors that influence decomposition in different conditions – in other countries like the US, Canada, Australia, and the Netherlands. Factors in the UK, such as our climate, soils, insects, plants, animals, and birds are different to those across the world. Data produced by other HTFs – while useful – are not directly applicable to forensic cases in the UK. Forensic scientists in the UK do not have robust, reliable, and empirical research on human subjects in controlled conditions on which to base their conclusions, which could undermine their evidence in court or the accuracy of their conclusions.
Do you think the sensitivity around the subject has hindered progress?
I actually don’t think there is much opposition to the UK having a HTF. There seem to be a few vocal nay-sayers, but, on the whole, I think most people understand the potential benefit of such a facility. Many people are actually surprised that the UK doesn’t already have one. There is the potential for negative public perception, sensationalist headlines, and misrepresentation in the media to hinder progress, but assuming the HTF was properly managed and governed, and the public were consulted at every stage, I think it would be viewed in the same way as anatomy schools or tissue banks – places where kind donors have helped to advance important research and training.
Is funding still a big obstacle?
Funding is always an obstacle! Unfortunately, forensic science seems to fall between the gaps of the remits of major government-funded research councils, and there are few funds for which we can apply. We would be reliant on an institution funding it, partial corporate sponsorship, or generous bequests from people who believe this facility would revolutionize forensic science in the UK. We have even thought about crowd-funding – if one (or more) of your readers would like to support this endeavor, we would love to hear from them!
How would such a facility account for unprecedented changes in UK weather – like the 40 °C temperatures reached in the summer of 2022?
The standard methods of estimating post-mortem intervals take into account temperature changes, so extremes of weather may produce results that we haven’t seen before, but not ones that we couldn’t account for. The current plans for a UK HTF would be based on ARISTA in the Netherlands, which is a “forensic cemetery,”, so all the donated cadavers are buried, not left exposed. This would mean that, to a certain extent, they would be protected from extremes of weather. Also, I would like the facility to include “biospheres,” which could control climatic conditions and maintain certain temperatures and humidity levels, regardless of the weather outside.
Have you secured a location, will that location be common knowledge, and what are the security considerations?
Ah, I cannot share news of a location at the moment! I would imagine that, once the facility is established, its location would be made available to the people who express an interest in donating, and to donors’ families for visitation. The location would also be known to people undertaking research or training there, of course. Finally, security must be taken very seriously to ensure respect for the donors and their families.
What extra information can we obtain from human cadavers compared with equivalent animal studies?
There is so much potential to learn about how human bodies interact with their environment and surroundings after death! Animal studies cannot teach us about how human conditions, activities, or lifestyles – such as cancer, diabetes, smoking, drug or medication use, sport, and diet – could affect the rate and processes of decomposition. For example, someone who has smoked heavily may decompose differently from someone who has never smoked, but we won’t know until we conduct tests with human donors with a known history of smoking. It would be unethical to recreate these conditions in living animals prior to their death.
We need human subjects to understand, for example, how fingerprints and faces change with time after death, how long after death we can find fingerprints, and how human DNA degrades in different environments. Traditionally, pigs have been used as proxies for humans because of their body size, muscle to fat ratio, sparse hair, and omnivorous diet. They can be used in large numbers to give repeatable, robust experiments with a high degree of control over variables. But, thanks to research carried out at HTFs, we know that pigs and humans decompose differently. In short, pigs are not suitable as substitutes for humans. Personally, I think it is more unethical to use animals who cannot provide informed consent in these experiments than to use humans who can willingly donate their bodies for these purposes.
- Nature (2019). Available at: https://go.nature.com/40XTAFo.