Anger at return of the body-snatchers

Click to follow
Body-snatching is back in fashion. Only this time the snatchers are not Burke and Hare but biotechnologists seeking to exploit the growing market in genes and diagnostic tests. Jeremy Laurance, Health Editor, asks whose body is it anyway?

A series of cases in which scientists have found themselves in conflict with patients over who owns tissue removed from their bodies has highlighted a growing problem that could threaten medical research, two experts in medical law have warned.

Patients have spoken of being "violated" when their body tissue was used without their consent. In one case, John Moore, a patient in California whose tissue was transformed into a commercial cell line and patented without his knowledge or consent, complained of feeling he had been "raped".

In another case, a widow sued a Los Alamos laboratory for severe mental and emotional distress after it had removed three and half kilograms of organs from her dead husband for research.

Professors Lori Andrews of Chicago-Kent College of Law and Dorothy Nelkin of New York University say in The Lancet that scientists often see the body and its parts as impersonal objects to be used for research and commercial development, and with the advent of biotechnology human tissue has become a raw material.

"Body parts are extracted like a mineral, harvested like a crop, mined like a resource. Cells, embryos or tissue can be frozen, banked ... patented, bought or sold."

They compare the body-snatching of the 18th century, whose most notorious practitioners were Burke and Hare who murdered individuals to sell to Dr Knox's anatomy school in Edinburgh, with the activities of scientists today. "Pathologists routinely analyse tissue samples without obtaining consent. Researchers try to commercialise tissue without sharing profits with sources. Objectifying the body enables scientists to extract, use and patent body tissue without reference to the person involved."

Professors Andrews and Nelkin say scientists risk a backlash if they continue to ignore public disquiet about what often appears to be the callous exploitation of human tissue by medical researchers.