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My body, my factory.

My Body, My Factory

With commercial surrogacy under a cloud following the New Jersey Supreme Court's decision in the Baby M case and with the possibility of transmission of viral diseases requiring increased scrutiny of such activities as prostitution and the sale of blood and other body fluids, those seeking profit from the human body must begin to look elsewhere. If people are willing to be a little creative, relief may be at hand.

Using techniques of genetic engineering, scientists have been able to introduce new genes into bacteria and higher animals, transforming them into drug makers. Bacteria are cheaper, but large or complex proteins often require more complicated cell machinery. For example, Integrated Genetics has reported success with introducing a gene into mice that causes them to produce the expensive anti-clotting agent tissue plasminogen activator (TPA) in their milk (New York Times, September 2, 1987, D6). Other genes for human proteins have been introduced into sheep, but no proteins produced in this fashion have yet been used therapeutically.

Could enterprising humans someday modify these techniques to transform their bodies into protein factories? To create mice or sheep capable of secreting proteins in their milk, scientists currently inject desired genes into newly fertilized eggs in vitro and then reimplant surviving embryos. In humans this degree of preplanning would substantially limit the technique's attractiveness. The harvesting of proteins from human milk would also restrict its applicability to women. Moreover, obtaining milk from mice requires oxytocin injections followed by mammary massage, which might lead otherwise willing women to demur.

Not to worry. New techniques involving fibroblasts (that is, skin cells) have shown that human genes can be inserted into these cells and expressed both in vitro and following reimplantation in mice. A recent report in the New England Journal of Medicine (October 22, 1987, 1067-76) describes the introduction of insulin-producing genes into skin cells that continued to function after being injected into the peritioneal cavities of mice. Investigators have also successfully inserted genes for growth hormone into human skin cells. The skin cells formed normal looking grafts on mice but failed to produce measurable amounts of hormone ("Expression of an Exogenous Growth Hormone Gene by Transplantable Human Epidermal Cells," Science, September 18, 1987, 1476-79).

Although the most direct relevance of these new techniques will undoubtedly be for somatic gene therapy, entrepreneurs of the body will certainly see the economic implications of inserting genes into skin cells. One could obtain cells from adults by skin biopsy, introduce the desired gene, and then return the new cell factories via a skin graft. If the substances produced were therapeutic, or at least not harmful to the host, the only problem would be retrieving the substance, and one's profit, from the body.

Since harvesting proteins from the blood would probably require frequent trips to a dialysis unit, one might prefer to look for lucrative nonprotein substances that could be harvested from the urine. Urine was once recycled to reclaim penicillin--is there any reason why human hosts should not enlist the aid of inserted genes to manufacture other antibiotics? Antibiotics that are expensive or difficult to produce, like some cephalosporins, might be likely candidates. Or if the genes for the cephalosporins prove hard to come by, other antibiotics or vitamins--any compound with medicinal or commercial value that can be excreted in large quantities in the urine--would do.

While some would argue that the compounds produced by the new genes might be harmful to the persons in whom they are grafted, potential vendors could avoid compounds that pose serious risks and could give informed consent, just as in human subjects research. Since urine is certainly replenishable, sale of it should not violate any state or federal statutes. Unless one takes seriously the "unmarketable" idea that human bodies should not be commodified, what is the ethical objection to making a profit, not by the sweat of one's brow, but by the efforts of one's renal tubules?

Resistance to patenting new animal forms arises from images of profit driving genetic engineering in unsavory directions. But what is unsavory? True monsters are unlikely in humans or in animals, and efficient uses of both have always existed. How should we view the possibility of willing humans becoming profitable factories? Would accepting one little skin graft tattoo and recycling one's urine instead of aluminum cans be an acceptable way to supplement a faltering monthly income or pay for costly medical treatment? Or would this be too close to selling a bit of one's soul?
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Title Annotation:commercial use of the human body
Author:Nolan, Kathleen; Swenson, Sara
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Date:Jun 1, 1988
Previous Article:Moratoriums on embryo research.
Next Article:The ethics of fetal tissue transplants.

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