Homo Economicus: Commercialization of Body Tissue in the Age of Biotechnology

Article excerpt

The human body is becoming hot property, a resource to be "mined," "harvested," patented, and traded commercially for profit as well as scientific and therapeutic advances. Under the new entrepreneurial approach to the body old tensions take on new dimensions--about consent, the fair distribution of tissues and products developed from them, the individual and cultural values represented by the body, and public policy governing the use of organs and tissues.

In recent years, biotechnology techniques have transformed a variety of human body tissue into valuable and marketable research materials and clinical products. Blood can serve as the basis for immortalized cell lines for biological studies and the development of pharmaceutical products; the catalogue from the American Tissue Culture Catalogue lists thousands of people's cell lines that are available for sale. Snippets of foreskin are used for the development of artificial skin. Biopsied tissue is used to manufacture therapeutic quantities of genetic material.

Body tissue also has commercial value beyond the medical and research contexts. Placenta is used to enrich shampoos, cosmetics, and skin care products. Kary Mullis, a Nobel Prize-winning geneticist, founded a company called Star Gene that uses gene amplification techniques to make and market jewelry, containing DNA cloned from famous rock stars and athletes. The idea, says Mullis, is that "teenagers might pay a little money to get a piece of jewelry containing the actual piece of amplified DNA of somebody like a rock star."[1]

There is also a market for services to collect and store one's tissue outside the body. People can pay to store blood prior to surgery or embryos in the course of in vitro fertilization. A Massachusetts company, BioBank, stores excess tissue removed during cosmetic or other surgical procedures for the patient's future use. New companies such as Safe-T-Child and Child Trail have formed to collect and store tissue samples to identify children who have been kidnapped. And a company called Identigene advertises on taxicabs and billboards (call 1-800-DNA-TYPE) for a service to collect tissue for DNA identification that would establish paternity in child support disputes. There are about fifty private DNA testing centers in the United States, hundreds of university laboratories undertaking DNA research, and over 1,000 biotechnology companies developing commercial products from bodily materials.

These expanding markets have increased the value of human tissue, and institutions with ready access to tissue find they possess a capital resource. Access to stored tissue samples is sometimes included in collaborative agreements between hospitals and biotechnology firms. In a joint venture agreement, Sequana Therapeutics, Inc., a California biotechnology firm, credited the New York City cancer hospital, Memorial-Sloan Kettering, with $5 million in order to obtain access to its bank of cancer tissue biopsies that could be useful as a source of genetic information.[2]

Physicians who treat families with genetic disease are approaching geneticists and offering to "sell you my families"[3]--meaning that they will, for a fee, give the researcher their patients' blood samples. Scientists who isolate certain genes are then patenting them and profiting from their use in genetic tests. Hospitals in Great Britain and Russia sell tissue in order to augment their limited budgets. Between 1976 and 1993 Merieux UK collected 360 tons of placental tissue each year from 282 British hospitals and sent them to France for use in manufacturing drugs.[4] Human tissue has become so valuable that it is sometimes a target for corporate espionage and theft.

In the United States the potential for commercial gain from the body grew as a consequence of legislative measures that were enacted in the 1980s to encourage the commercial development of government-funded research.[5] Legislation allowed universities and nonprofit institutions to apply for patents on federally funded projects and also provided tax incentives to companies investing in academic research. …