For many people, organ donation is an opportunity to use their own death to extend another person’s life. Hearts and lungs can be transplanted directly into another patient, while other tissues are first processed into medical products such as bone screws and skin grafts. But while repurposing human remains may be charitable, it is also an industry, an industry that sometimes prioritizes profit over safety and dignity.
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has gathered information on the tissue trade for eight months, and published a disturbing exposé in the Sydney Morning Herald. The need for human body parts and lack of regulation means that not all tissue-derived medical products are obtained through legal channels, and not all remains are treated with respect.
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.)