Are your human cells coming from executed prisoners?During the Christmas pause, I had occasion to spoke with one of my elderly aunts that I probably see once or twice a year. She had always admired my path to pursue biomedical research, but often she had shown to be uncomfortable with the notion that biomedical research is also done by killing mice. So, while eating some killed turkey - despite we were not in the need for calories - she argued that now, as the TV says, the experiments can be done without killing, well, poor mice, but, I mean, directly on the cells. I was sipping some Chianti, so I just nodded up and down while she, well... you know... cells as alternative models. Then, inspired by the wine, I replied back: by chance, do you know where the cells come from? No? Well, from killed mice, mostly pups indeed. My reply was partial, but at least she learnt something that the TV does not say, and I wanted to be partial to give her such a take home message for that day.
The truth is that other cell lines are actually of human origin, mostly, I presume, taken from volunteers. Maybe in the past, it was a little bit different, and I doubt Henrietta Lacks signed any declaration of consent for the use of her carcinoma HeLa cells, but OK, this was the past, and for the whole story you can read this book.
However, if today I order some human primary hepatocytes, and I can get them for few hundred dollars, I suppose there was some human informed consent before, like I suppose there is one for organ transplantation. No mouse can sign an informed consent so taking apart any argument regarding the scientific value of animal vs cell research, from a pure ethical perspective, I would prefer doing my research on human primary hepatocytes rather than mouse primary culture. However, this JCI editorial is making me anxious. And, dear aunt, you better believe cells come from mice, guaranteed! In a few words, the Journal of Clinical Investigation is making an aut aut embargo on Chinese research papers regarding transplantation. Says the Editor in chief:
(we will no longer consider) for publication any submissions pertaining to or containing information about human organ transplantation in China unless there is an attestation that the organ sources are not executed prisoners.
The only way to guarantee transplant of a liver or heart during the relatively short time period that a transplant tourist is in China is to quickly obtain the requisite medical information from prospective recipients, find matches among them, and then execute a person who is a suitable match.
Tough words! At the beginning, I felt lucky not to work on transplantation, and be relegated in a more naive basic science corner. However, as the hours are passing, I can not stop asking myself: when I place my order, where my human primary hepatocytes come from?