The Business of Bodies

Medical research nowadays increasingly sounds like business. Gene sequences are patented; cord blood is a hot property. Geneticists talk of "prospecting" for genes. Body tissue is "extracted," "harvested," and "banked."

This language reflects the growing ability to transform human tissue into research materials and clinical products. Blood can serve as the basis for immortalized cell lines in biological studies and in developing pharmaceutical products. Snippets of infant foreskin are used for generating artificial skin. Biopsied tissues are used to manufacture therapeutic genetic material. Human tissue, organs and cells are used in place of animal tissue for testing pharmaceuticals and cosmetics because animals are expensive and using them incites protests.

Body tissue also has commercial value beyond medicine. Placenta is used in shampoos. Kiotech, a British biotech firm, harvests human sweat to extract pheromones for a product called "Xcite," towelettes saturated with a sexual hormone that "boosts the wearer's sexual smell signature." Kary Mullis, a Nobel Prize-winning geneticist, founded a company called "Star Gene" to market jewelry containing DNA cloned from rock stars. Stranger still is "GeneLink," which markets DNA kits to funeral directors to help them extract DNA from the deceased.

Research and clinical uses of body parts have been controversial since the early days of anatomical dissection, which once evoked Dante-esque visions of Hell. As the Renaissance brought growing interest in anatomy, body snatching became a lucrative business with cadavers obtained through grave robbing, bribing hospital attendants, or even murdering beggars. The commercial calculus behind this business sometimes caused riots until anatomy laws allowed the bodies of executed murderers and the unclaimed dead to be used, thus reassuring middle and upper class individuals that their bodies would not be involved.