Human value: not the price of parts

HOW much of you belongs to you? When it comes down to the human body - and the appendages thereof - the answer is usually everything.

In this world of biotechnology, including organ transplants and in vitro fertilization, however, the issue grows murky.

Take, for example, the case of John Moore, the Seattle soda salesman who now wants to be remunerated for diseased cells and tissues surgically removed from him more than a decade ago.

Mr. Moore says the physician who treated him, David Golde, parlayed samples from his body into valuable research commodities and has substantially enriched himself through their use.

Dr. Golde and others found that Moore's spleen had unique properties that could be used for therapy. They patented a cell line and sold rights to the patent to a Boston-based biotechnology firm in a deal that was reportedly worth $3 million.

When he found out about it, Moore, who said he had no idea his tissues were being used for commercial purposes, sued for a portion of the profits. The case is now in the courts.

The issue of the ownership of human cells and tissues and their commercial use is a longstanding one. It speaks to ethical and religious considerations as well as legal ones.

Last year the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) issued a report calling for federal action in this rapidly changing area of biotechnology.

OTA said there were no laws that clearly define ownership rights to human cells and tissues used in research. The report added that if the materials in question lead to patentable and potentially profitable products, new legislation is probably needed for the donor to share in any profits if an equitable compensation system can be worked out.

Some argue that ownership rests with the person from whom the tissues come. Others say it goes to those who develop products from the tissues.

OTA, a nonpartisan agency that studies technical issues for Congress, also points out that there is currently no law or policy that answers the question of whether human biological materials should be sold at all.

The agency suggested, however, that in the absence of legal guidance, the sale of cells and tissues would seem permissible unless it poses a threat to individual or public health or is strongly offensive to public sensibility.

It further pointed out that there are no ethical guidelines about how human biological materials should be developed or exchanged.

OTA did acknowledge that scientists have traditionally used cells and tissues for research without the donors' knowledge. It is reasoned that these materials help in searching for the causes and cures of diseases.

And with the development of new biotechnology techniques, such as gene splicing, industry has the commercial means to make products derived from human cells.

Some donors, including John Moore, have filed legal actions to share in some of the anticipated profits from sale of these products.

A 1980 US Supreme Court decision held that new life forms created by biotechnology may be patented. This ruling suggests that altered human cells and genetic material would also be patentable.

Meanwhile, the latest development in the Moore case has bolstered the rights of donors.

Reversing an earlier ruling that dismissed the Moore suit, a California appeals court in late July held that human tissues and cells remain a person's property when taken for medical purposes. The court also said the individual is entitled to share in the profits if these materials are used commercially.

The issues in this case are so basic that it is almost certain to continue to work its way up through the legal system to the Supreme Court.

One side sees the key priority as individual rights and privacy. The other insists that public benefits from biotechnology research far outweigh donors' financial claims.

Interestingly, the California court commented on the ``astonishing aspects of value'' the human body has taken on in recent years.

Would that similar value, or more, be placed not so much on matter but on man as a noncorporeal entity in the larger universe?

A Thursday column

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