Who owns your cells once they leave your body? : The Indicator from Planet Money You can buy almost anything online, including ... human cells. Culturing and selling cells is a multibillion dollar global industry that supports all sorts of scientific research. But where do those cells come from?

Cells for sale

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You know, what never ceases to amaze me as an economics reporter is there is a market for pretty much everything, and that includes human cells.


We are talking about little microscopic bits of bone and organ and a whole lot more for sale.

MA: When it comes to buying cells, do you know where we can go to do that?

SHOBITA PARTHASARATHY: Yeah, the internet.

MA: The internet, of course.

VANEK SMITH: Of course.

MA: Shobita Parthasarathy heads the science, tech and public policy program at the University of Michigan. And she says there are a bunch of websites that do this.

PARTHASARATHY: This is Biocompare, the buyer's guide for life sciences.

MA: So looking at this, I see primary human cells, cell lines, blood cells, embryonic, human kidney, $600 per vial. You get a discount with five vials - plus three free.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) Don't let this deal slip through your fingers.

MA: So how do they end up there?

PARTHASARATHY: So they end up there because enterprising people see a market, as they often do.


VANEK SMITH: As they often do. This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

MA: And I'm Adrian Ma. Today on the show, it's cells for sale. We go inside a company that turns human tissue into scientific research tools. It is going to get a little gross.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah, if you're squeamish, but your sandwich down, at least.

MA: You've been warned.

Human cells are used for all sorts of scientific research. For example, a drug maker might use blood cells to test out the new therapy, or a cosmetics company might use skin cells to test out the safety of its products. So developing and selling cells is a big business. Globally, estimates are the industry's worth at least several billion dollars.

WILL PLENTL: All therapeutics, all drugs that are on the market today, you know, they're all built based on a foundation of research. And human cells provide one of the key components that's used in that research.

VANEK SMITH: Will Plentl is the chief operating officer at ZenBio, this little company in North Carolina. And he says if you think about cells as the tools of scientific research, then you can kind of think of companies like his as the hardware store.

MA: To understand how companies like ZenBio make these tools, let's follow the process for one particular kind of cell that often gets used in obesity and diabetes research - adipose tissue, also known as fat.

PLENTL: In the early days, yes, adipose tissue - that was how we kind of made our name in the research marketplace.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) So they're like, like, if you need a fat cell, call them.

MA: Right. It was like their original hit. So how does ZenBio turn human fat into scientific tools?

PLENTL: The foundation and raw materials for everything that we do on the cell side comes from actual human tissue.

VANEK SMITH: And that actual human tissue comes from the local plastic surgeon's office in a lot of cases. So, you know, people go in, they have liposuction or, like, a tummy tuck. And normally, the fat that's removed would just become medical waste. But Will's company - you know, they'll show up at the office and say, hey, we would love to take that fat off your hands.

MA: When you get the raw material, like, how does it arrive? Is it like one big oil drum full of stuff? Like, what does it look like?

PLENTL: It's definitely not a 55-gallon drum. In some cases, it could be a coffee-cup-full. In other cases, it could be like a gallon-jug-full.

VANEK SMITH: Well, I'm off coffee.


MA: So from there, they take the fat back to the lab where it's processed and refined.

PLENTL: And then when we're doing things that require our sterile environment, then this is where we work. Inside of this...

MA: And on video chat, Will actually gave us a little tour of where that happens. In the lab, one worker is holding up this plastic, cone-shaped container, and it's filled with what I could only describe as red sludge.


PLENTL: The fat is the layer on top. And there it has some blood in there from the procedure as well.

MA: I don't even know if I should say this, but it kind of has, like, a smoothie appearance.

PLENTL: That's exactly right. I mean, it can be kind of disgusting, but...

MA: That's science.

PLENTL: That's science. Science isn't clean (laughter).

VANEK SMITH: Adrian, now I'm off smoothies and coffee.

MA: (Laughter).

VANEK SMITH: Anyway, so Will and his team - they run this sludge through a bunch of machines so that they can separate out the fat cells. And then they put the cells into these little vials, and they sell the vials online for about $650 apiece.

MA: And if all of this is starting to make you a little queasy, Will says just remember that so much scientific research could not happen if these products didn't exist - like if people didn't donate their tissue.

VANEK SMITH: But it is maybe worth taking a second to think about that word - donate. Because before cell development was a global industry, things worked a lot differently.

MA: You might have heard this infamous case from medical history involving Henrietta Lacks. She was a Black woman in the 1950s who went to a hospital for treatment, and a doctor took her cells without her consent. And over time, these cells were replicated and used for all kinds of scientific research.

VANEK SMITH: And Henrietta and her descendants were not compensated for this. But today, you can still go online and buy Henrietta Lacks cells online from a bunch of different companies.

MA: Shobita Parthasarathy, the Michigan professor we met earlier - she says, yes, things are different today. Like, before a hospital or a plastic surgeon's office will collect a patient's cells, they almost certainly present patients with a consent form. But she says she still has concerns.

PARTHASARATHY: We do generally have these agreements, but those agreements are very broad, they're not particularly well written, and they're not necessarily written with the needs of the public in mind.

VANEK SMITH: Shobita says these consent agreements typically say something like, you know, we're going to remove some of your tissue and you, the patient, will relinquish any financial interest in what we do with it. And even though it's pretty common practice, Shobita says a lot of people just probably aren't even aware of it.

MA: I've never been in a situation where I've been asked to, like, consent to have my cells, you know, further...

PARTHASARATHY: Oh, I'm sure you have.

MA: ...Developed. I have?

PARTHASARATHY: I'm sure you have. You just don't know it.

MA: Well, like, what...

PARTHASARATHY: I mean, have you ever had any kind of hospital procedure? Not to get too personal, but...

MA: Yeah. Yeah.

PARTHASARATHY: OK. Then yes, you provided that consent.

MA: Huh.


MA: But if it was just, like, I had outpatient hernia surgery...

PARTHASARATHY: If they cut you open, yeah.

MA: For the record, Shobita isn't literally saying this always happens - just that it's a lot more common than people realize. In my case, I was like 19 years old, kind of freaked out about having to go through surgery, and I have no idea if I signed a consent form. But Shobita says that's kind of her point.

PARTHASARATHY: You have obviously one power differential, which is someone wants treatment, right? So they're already kind of in a vulnerable position. And they're asked to sign a consent form. And we just sign it because usually in those cases, there's a desperation involved.

VANEK SMITH: Shobita says all of this raises a really important question.

PARTHASARATHY: Which is if you take cells out of the body, do you really own them anymore? Do you really have an interest in them?

MA: There isn't a ton of case law on this question, but courts have generally said no. But Shobita says as a matter of public policy, people should have more control over what researchers can do with their cells. So maybe that means letting people opt out of studies they don't agree with, or maybe that means giving people a financial stake in the products that get developed from their cells.

VANEK SMITH: As you might guess, Will from ZenBio is not too keen on that idea.

PLENTL: Science is really about failure. The majority of all efforts in science to bring some therapy or drug to market is mired in failure and cost.

VANEK SMITH: Will says if that cost has to include paying everybody whose cells are used in the research, that could reduce the incentive for companies to innovate. It might slow down scientific research.

MA: I get that. But, you know, if my cells are floating out there somewhere, I'm just saying I wouldn't mind if some drug company wanted to cut me a royalty check.


MA: Special thanks today to Mike Okimoto (ph) and Luis Dominguez (ph). This episode was produced by Nicky Oullet and Brittany Cronin, with engineering help from Isaac Rodrigues. Viet Le is our senior producer. Taylor Washington checked the facts. Kate Concannon is our editor, and THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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