Could Your Cells Be Worth Millions?
By donating blood plasma, you can make anywhere from $40 to $100 per week. But that's loose change to Ted Slavin. He could make a hundred times that by selling his blood serum.
Not everyone can do what Slavin did, however, and not everyone may want to. Rebecca Skloot told his tale in her best-selling book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Born with hemophilia, a genetic disorder that impairs the blood's ability to clot, Slavin received blood transfusions repeatedly throughout his life. This never-ending process unfortunately exposed him to hepatitis B on countless occasions. Though Slavin's blood refused to clot, it demonstrated incredible resiliency to the viral hepatitis invaders. When his doctor tested his blood, he found a wealth of hepatitis B antibodies, Y-shaped proteins uniquely suited to fighting off the infection. The discovery blasted open a goldmine for both Slavin and scientists. They needed antibodies for research; he needed money. Slavin began charging as much as $10 for every milliliter of his blood. Pharmaceutical companies bought it wholesale. Slavin's body was now his business.
With a sizable and steady stream of income secured, Slavin soon begin looking for charitable causes to champion. He found it with Dr. Baruch Blumberg at the Fox Chase Cancer Center. At no cost, Slavin supplied Baruch and his team of researchers with copious amounts of his valuable blood, which they used to develop the first hepatitis B vaccine. Blumberg would win a Nobel Prize for his efforts. When Slavin died in November 1984, Blumberg honored his generosity.
"We will long remember Ted Slavin as a gallant man who loved life and who contributed greatly to our research efforts," he wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Anna O'Connell, a scientist stationed at Fox Chase, had a similar opportunity to Slavin, but chose a somewhat different course. Diagnosed with thyroid cancer at the tender age of 28, O'Connell learned that her blood contained armies of antibodies that dwarfed Slavin's. As a researcher, she knew the moneymaking potential of her blood, but when doctors asked for bucketfuls of the stuff, she freely gave it. They subsequently developed a valuable, lifesaving test for which she received no money. It doesn't bother her.
The same cannot be said for John Moore, another person whose body turned out to be brimming with biological treasure. In the 1970s and 1980s, Moore visited David Golde, a cancer researcher at UCLA, to treat his hairy-cell leukemia, but Moore was unaware that the entire time Golde was using his fluid and tissue samples to develop a cell line for use in scientific research. That cell line was later valued at $3 billion!
When Moore found out, he considered Golde's actions tantamount to theft, and filed a lawsuit. After a lengthy battle that ended up in the California Supreme Court, Moore lost. As Skloot summarized, the judges ruled that "when tissues are removed from your body, with or without your consent, any claim you might have had to owning them vanishes."
The decision from Moore's case constitutes the primary precedent that currently exists on this legally murky issue. In an opinion published to a 2012 issue of Science, Dr. Robert Truog, Director of the Center for Bioethics at Harvard Medical School, interpreted how things currently shake out in the real world.
"We have argued that patients have the right to decline, for any reason, consent for procedures that procure tissue from their bodies. Implicit in this claim is that patients have the right to demand payment in exchange for consent. The next question is whether investigators should provide such payment, or whether they should only accept tissue when the patient offers it as a gift."
Truog, along with co-authors Aaron S. Kesselheim and Steven Joffe, contend that scientists should only accept freely donated tissue, unless "the tissue's market value can be estimated beforehand." They add a key codicil, however.
"The altruism of patients to donate tissue to medical research must be met by similar generosity on the part of investigators and institutions. This could be accomplished through legislative mandates that promote the sharing of research findings and products with other scientists, or by voluntary efforts of investigators and institutions to do the same."
If patients with valuable blood, tissues, or cells freely donate pieces of their body to science, then scientists should openly share the resulting discoveries. It's only fair.