Cell Ownership

Carl Szczerski, Prepared slide, No internet li...

Carl Szczerski, Prepared slide (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Biology 42 – Human Biology (Spring 2007)

Cell Ownership

[ Students and professors, please read. ]

The issue is who owns the scraps (tissues) of patients that are no longer part of a patient’s body.  Some patients, like Ted Slavin, John Moore, Anna O’Connell, the “Jones”es and the “Greenberg”s want to maintain ownership of those scraps, to be able to determine what sort of research they will or will not be used for, and if commercialized, to get a cut of the profit (or to be able to transfer them to a different clinic).  Doctors, like Dr. William J. Catalona, want to maintain ownership of tissue samples they help acquire, or to let the patients, rather than institutions, maintain ownership, so that the tissue can be used in research not limited to that institution.  Such institutions, like hospitals and universities, like Washington University, have been granted ownership if they inform donors that their donation and all responsibility for its maintenance belongs to the university.  According to the opinion of Judge Stephen Limbaugh, the benefit of institutional ownership is the advancement of medical research in a way which prevents “the buying and selling of human tissue to the highest bidder,” and providing open access to make sure “access to these materials by the scientific community is not thwarted by public agendas,” – like an individual’s opinion about which research his/her tissues can be used for, and whether or not they benefit from any profit.

The only half-good argument against recognizing an individual’s ownership of his/her own tissue, is that it may limit how much tissue is available for research.  That it will mean profit-sharing (between patient, researcher, and institution) doesn’t really bother me, until you take into account that advances in medicine are, like everything else in a capitalist economy, spurred on by profit.  But has an objective study really been done to see if people would refuse to allow their tissues to advance medicine if completely informed?  And even if they would refuse – that is their right, despite the cost.

I agree with Lori Andrews when she says that “research isn’t a matter of conscription,” (and I’m also not in favor of conscription).  But David Korn, senior vice president of the Association of American Medical Colleges, says “I think people are morally obligated to allow their bits and pieces to be used to advance knowledge to help others. Since everybody benefits, everybody can accept the small risks of having their tissue scraps used in research.”

If anyone stands to make a profit from tissue, they should be open to patients expecting something in return for their donations (supply) (though selling organs and tissues outright is illegal), and that they ‘demand’ it be used for certain research, and not certain other research.  To take away their power over their tissues is like taking away their vote, or their strength of demand in the economy.  I think it is good that the Fox Chase Cancer Center “ask(s) permission to keep tissues and let(s) patients specify what research their samples will be used for,” and I think all other medical researchers should similarly respect cell ownership.

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