Does biobanking risk commodification of human tissue samples ?

According to one dictionary definition, commodification is:

‘The action or process of treating something as a mere commodity’. A commodity is ‘a substance or product that can be traded, bought, or sold’.

‘Commodification’ is often used disapprovingly, especially concerning the human body and its parts. Some believe commercial transactions involving human biosamples result in their commodification. They argue that human samples are more than mere objects or commodities. So treating these samples as commodities devalues them and is unethical.


Do Commercial Transactions Result in Commodification Of Human Tissue Samples?

The following article examines ethical objections to biobanking transactions:

Wilkinson’s article makes the point that bodies and body parts are indeed objects. Yet, they are not mere objects. In other words, they are something with value over and above ordinary objects  like loaves of bread or lumps of coal. It is the link between body parts and people that makes body parts more than mere objects. As argued in the article:

‘Bodies are more than mere objects insofar as they are somehow intimately related to persons’. ‘So to objectify the body is to treat it as a mere object, and this means treating it as if it weren’t intimately related to a person‘.

So what would it mean to treat a tissue sample as if it weren’t intimately related to a person? In other words, what would make someone guilty of commodifying a biospecimen?

Wilkinson argues that the two main ways of doing this would be:

  1. Firstly, doing something to the sample without the person’s valid consent.
  2. Secondly, doing something to the sample that will harm the person.

As any biobanker knows, standard biobanking practices guard against both of these outcomes.


Biobanking Practices That Minimise Commodification

Based on the arguments above, biobanking practices that minimise the risk of  commodification include:

  1. Informed consent for research use of human biospecimens. In addition, the need to be transparent about commercial use.
  2. Protecting patient confidentiality through anonymisation and deidentification of biospecimens and data.
  3. IRB oversight of biobank activities.

This article is on the Biosample Hub blog. Other posts in this blog include:

  1. Why Academic / Hospital Biobanks Should Provide Biosamples to Industry
  2. Ensuring Public Support For Biobank Cooperation With Industry
  3. The Main Actors Providing Biosamples To Industry
  4. Biosample Needs of Different Industry Players
  5. The Dual Role of Academic Biobanks
  6. What is Commodification?
  7. Acceptable Transactions in Biobanking
  8. Why Biobank Access Policies Should Be Publicly Available
  9. Biospecimen Provenance: What Researchers Need To Know

The Biosample Hub platform encourages ethical sourcing of biosamples for the industry sector.