Tuesday, May 2

the modern body snatchers

Were we using tissues from dissidents killed by the Chinese government? Or others who died in prison and didn't have a choice about whether to donate their body to science? That's what one of my labmates wondered, when I was working in cancer research at a biotech company a few years ago.

We were getting tumor samples from a company that sells human tissues, and my co-worker noticed that by far most of the samples were from Asian men.

It would be a bit odd to find a huge portion of those being put to death would also happen to have cancer. (Although I'm sure at least a few would, since China executes around 2,000 to 8,000 people each year, as I mentioned in an earlier post.)

The male bias was hard to explain, and it did seem a bit odd that so many of the samples were from asians. Were the tissues coming from foreigners? Are asians more likely to contribute their bodies to science? (From what I know of traditional Chinese medicine, at least, I would say they might be less likely to, since there had long been a taboo against surgery or dissection.)

The head of our lab called the tissue company to ask where they get their samples, and they told him something reassuring, like that they get all their samples from people who died from natural causes. But even if it the samples were from people put to death, and the company knew it, why would they admit it?

As noted in this news article in Nature (subscription required), there has been a fair amount of shady dealing in the area of human tissue sales, with people getting caught selling bodies they weren't supposed to, or scamming money off the sales, etc. There is little regulation in this area, the article says:
With so much at stake, why have the laws remained so lenient? The reason, bioethicists say, is hard lobbying by those in the death industry and legislators' reluctance to deal with the icky subject matter. "It's a business with a nefarious history and nobody wants to talk about it," says McGee.

But some think more regulation wouldn't really improve things:
"The government will just screw it up," says Kenneth Iserson, director of the Arizona Bioethics Program at the University of Arizona. "They will overregulate in some bizarre fashion that will make it more difficult than it already is."

Instead, experts say, organizations that buy bodies should require total transparency from suppliers. These groups should demand documentation on how handlers store and transport the bodies, and how much money they received in return.
But how to know whether the information the suppliers give is correct? They could have an interest in claiming that a body from a more rare group—say, those who died in their forties from "natural causes"—since they could thus satisfy demand or charge a premium for these samples, it seems.

But researchers who get mislabeled tissues could find their results skewed, the article points out, so they have an incentive to make sure the tissue dealers are honest about that type of information, at least.
"If I could give one piece of advice to bench researchers, I'd say ask for the source," says Olson. "If the funeral industry was involved, you need to ask more questions."
In the case in my old lab, with the predominantly Asian male samples, we just went ahead getting samples from the company because we didn't have any solid evidence that something fishy was going on. But given the history of the industry, perhaps when researchers suspect something strange, they should seek another supplier.

But maybe shopping around can't solve the problem. A few years back the Berkeley city council wanted to buy the gas for the city's fleet of vehicles from the least bad of the oil companies. But after a review of all the major companies, factoring in such things as their environmental record and ties to human rights abuses in oil-bearing countries, the city council decided the oil companies were all equally bad. Let's hope the human tissue industry, although some might find it icky, is somewhat more honest and upright.


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