How Do Scientists Get Ahold of Human Fat? Tummy Tucks.

By Sarah Zhang | April 6, 2012 10:35 am

spacing is important
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

  • Sajanas

    It doesn’t surprise me at all that people doing expensive, elective surgery would have their leftover cells sold to people testing unnecessary, expensive products. Its not like we’re talking about unique types of cells that would go into the ATCC tissue culture collection, but rather people who need fresh human primary cells in bulk for generic testing… doing that with cash direct from the source seems a reasonable way to go, as long as the plastic surgeons aren’t trying to ‘farm’ people for fat, and if they have the decency to give the patients a kickback for the added profit the doctor is making off of them.

    And as much as I liked the book on HeLa cells, I still think, at the time, that the scientists attention was so focused on creating the *first* ever cell culture, that it makes sense that they’d be more busy with doing that than trying to give the donors updates on what happened with their donation. After all, its not like when you donate your body to science, your relatives get a photo spread of how it was used.

  • David

    Utilizing human fat removed from a donors body is, at the very least, a much better option than testing products on living animals.

  • http://retired,StLouisPost-Dispatch Bob LaRouche

    I’m not qualified to comment on recycling belly fat; I’d gladly give mine away. But as a reasonably literate reader I must respond to your headline: AHOLD is not a word. It may be a mishmash used in casual conversation, but it is not correct English. It is like the “meet up,” two words misused where one would do correctly. Please have your headlines reviewed by a copy editor.
    Your science may be admirable but you need a little help with your publication with publication niceties: your “best stories” jams type together so tightly I have given up trying to decipher the mess of letters.

  • http://retired,StLouisPost-Dispatch Bob LaRouche

    Oops – I doubled up words. Need a good copy editor.

  • Chris@BorderWars

    Baby foreskins are routinely sold without robust knowledge or consent of the parent. And of course no knowledge or consent of the child. Muti-billion dollar a year business in skin grafts alone.

  • Rinus

    The matter is as complicated when dealing with other types of donation. I’m a (blood) plasma donor, which is not as off-topic as it sounds. Where I live (the Netherlands) there is no compensation involved in donating plasma, yet I have to cope somehow with the ethical issue that the organisation responsible for handling my freely donated blood is making a fair amount of money off my body products. Some time ago, a group of donors discontinued donating when the salary of the CEO of this organisation became known.

    The thing you have to wrap your mind around is the issue that medical research and health care takes place (like any other business) in an economic system based on the exchange of money for products or services. In such a system, altruism in a (rightly so) tightly regulated quality control system can never exist without this system. It’s how things work. How are we, as patients at the receiving end of the blood product line, to reward the CEO of the blood bank in thanks for blood products of the highest quality? Potatoes? Bricks for building a house? If his or her salary is cut, would (s)he stay? Would the quality stay guaranteed?

    I’m not saying it’s right, nor do I want to be compensated (this would be worse, I believe), no matter how much money is made from my “good deed”. I just picture, rather naïvely perhaps, my blood being accepted with extraordinary care and gratefulness and that some level of fairness is involved in the financial part with the people working professionally in the blood and body parts donation business. But in fairness, I do not expect it to go to the cosmetics industry.

  • Sara Greene

    Bob LaRouche-

    Informal . a hold or grasp (often followed by of ): He took ahold of my arm. Grab ahold!
    Nautical Archaic . close to the wind and on a single tack: to keep a vessel ahold.

    Idiom . get ahold of, Informal . hold ( def. 51 ) .
    1600–10; a-1 + hold1 (noun)

  • Brian

    @Bob – AHOLD has been used since the 1800’s (at least). Most dictionaries cite it as informal, but how formal should an article about harvesting body fat for research have to be?

  • MG


    Pedantry is unbecoming, especially when incorrect.

  • Sting99

    Not only that all language is invented, we invent new words every day. After all there was a time when the ancestors of humans had no language. Words, slang, shortforms come into being with use all the time.

  • cosmetic surgery

    Tummy tuck or Liposuction for shaping your body. Still can’t tone your abdominal region? Go for tummy tuck or liposuction in Cancun & Tijuana, Mexico.


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