Sunday, April 16, 2006

Can I have some of your blood?

The New York Times Magazine had a provocative piece this morning regarding the biotech industry and its use of tissue samples by Rebecca Skloot (who, ironically, stands to make handsome profits from her soon-to-be-published book on the topic called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks) :

"When you go to the doctor for a routine blood test or mole removal, when you
have an appendectomy or any other type of –ectomy, the stuff you leave behind
does not get thrown out. Doctors, hospitals, and laboratories keep them. ….
Scientists use these products to develop everything from flu vaccines to tissue
penis enlargement products. … Without these tissues, we would have no tests for
diseases like hepatitis and H.I.V.; no vaccines for polio, smallpox, measles;
none of the new promising drugs for leukemia, breast cancer, colon cancer. And
without these tissues, the developers of these products would be out millions of

The article describes a case regarding John Moore, a man who had hairy cell leukemia and required splenectomy. His spleen supplied valuable proteins and carried a rare virus that might lead to treatments for H.I.V., and the doctor who removed that spleen filed a patent on Mr. Moore’s cell line, the "Mo" cell line, standing to make $3.5 million in potential royalties.

Here's an idea: why don't hospitals and industry just stop this practice because we're so upset that our polyp is over at University of Massachusetts! Or at least make sure every shaved basal cell comes with a travel itinerary!

First of all, the "payday" like this is unusual: the article describes cells of 178 million people's tissues or blood on file somewhere (duh, can you say DNA for the FDA's crime lab?). The dollars and intellectual property to develop such tests and treatments is as extraordinary. How many tests, hours of research, and teams of researchers had to be made (and paid) to find one such tissue sample?

Simple question: should doctors and researchers request your consent to use your discarded tissues to conduct research that could potentially be profitable?

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