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  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: June 2012

18 - Bio-ownership: who owns the stuff of life?

from Section 5 - Our duties to each other



In reading this chapter you will:

learn about Henrietta Lacks and her singular contribution to science;

reflect on whether Lacks had a moral right to share in the profits generated by her cells;

consider John Moore and the need for fully informed consent;

reflect on the notion of informed consent for specific and commercial uses of tissue;

examine a UK scandal to reflect further on consent to specific uses of tissue;

consider the notions of biopiracy and bioprospecting in the context of the Biodiversity Convention;

learn about the recent history of patenting DNA and other biological resources;

reflect on whether the ‘stuff of life’ should be patentable at all.

In the eighteenth century surgeons were trained by the Company of Barber Surgeons who were alone allowed legal access to the corpses of criminals executed by the state. The many private schools of anatomy made do with the services of grave-robbers or those, like Burke and Hare, who murdered their victims to provide fresh corpses.

The authorities turned a blind eye to the activities of the grave-robbers (though not the murderers) because of their service to society. In those days, anyway, the notion of ‘informed’, ‘genuine’ or ‘appropriate’ consent was unknown.

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Skloot, R. 2010 The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks London Macmillan
Gold, M. 1986 A Conspiracy of Cells: One Woman's Immortal Legacy and the Medical Scandal it Caused New York State University of New York Press
Hartman, R.G. 1993 Beyond Moore: issues of law and policy impacting human cell and genetic research in the age of biotechnology Journal of Legal Medicine 14
Lander, E. S. Linton, L. M. Birren, B. 2001 Initial sequencing and analysis of the human genome Nature 409
Venter, J.C. Adams, M.D. Myers, E.W. 2001 The sequence of the human genome Science 291
Kesselheim, A. Mello, M. 2010 Gene patenting: is the pendulum swinging back? New England Journal of Medicine 362