So much adipose tissue…
Most of us think of our love handles as something we’d rather do without. Scientists would be glad to take them off your hips—er, hands.
In a feature for The Telegraph’s magazine, we learn that researchers at Bath University, who are trying to study the impact of exercise on fat tissue, had until recently been painstakingly recruiting volunteers to donate flab, a gram or less per person. But then they realized there’s a sizable population of people willing to pay to have their fat removed. After partnering up with a cosmetic surgery clinic in Bath, they’re rolling in the stuff: they’ve collected six kilograms of human fat, equal to 6000-12,000 volunteers at their previous rate. All that fat came from tummy tucks. (Liposuction fat, it turns out, is no good, because the procedure uses enzymes that break down the tissue too far for research.)
It’s hard to argue against repurposing plastic surgery leftovers for science research, but the ethical waters get murkier when money is involved. The Telegraph reporter goes inside a L’Oreal-affiliated lab that tests products on human skin from breast and tummy reductions. (The scientists there have preferences too: “I must admit I prefer to work with breast reduction skin because the skin is nicer. For the tummy, the skin has been extended,” one said to the Telegraph.)
As it stands, most patients sign their rights away as part of their pre-surgery paperwork. A patient quoted in the Telegraph piece had no problem with donating her tissue, though the commercial aspect did make her queasy:
It appealed to her sense of thrift – her swags of unwanted flesh being put to good use. Nor did she mind a part of herself travelling to research labs around the world. But as soon as money entered the equation with the realisation that her cells could become a commodity, she became less clear. “That’s kind of strange,” she says.
“There is an intrinsic unfairness about companies making money out of people’s tissue,” acknowledges Professor Harding, “but to say you have to pay a specific amount of money to the donor would strangle very good research.”
These ethical tissues have implications far beyond beyond cosmetic surgeries and cosmetics companies. Before any type of surgery, patients are asked to sign routine consent forms stating that tissue removed during the procedure may be used for research. That means the cells that were once a part your body can live on—and on. Rebecca Skloot’s 2010 book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks dealt sensitively and intelligently with this very issue. HeLa cells taken from a woman dying of cancer have been used in Nobel prize-winning research and made millions for biomedical companies. Her own children had no idea about any of this before Skloot contacted them to research her book.
Stomach image via Shutterstock