Rethinking Healthcare

Tummy tuck leftovers repurposed for science

Tummy tuck leftovers repurposed for science

Posting in Cancer

Skin and fatty tissue byproducts are prized by researchers and big businesses worldwide. They're applied in obesity studies, recycled for breast reconstructions, and used to test cosmetics.

Scientists have been using tummy tuck byproducts in research for years. Businesses have been selling batches of human fat cells for thousands of dollars. But do patients have a right to know where their unwanted fat ends up? The Telegraph asks.

An abdominoplasty can result in large pieces of intact flesh weighing several pounds, which are usually headed to the incinerator.

But it’s much more than just fat. It releases hormones and proteins, and it should be mined for all sorts of insights it can give about the human body. (Fat from a liposuction, it turns out, is no good. That procedure uses enzymes that break down the tissue too much.)

It would seem that a whole industry has grown up around tissue collection.

  • In 2000, Dylan Thompson of Bath University started recruiting volunteers for his research on the impact of exercise. Once in the lab, he’d remove a sample of fat from their stomachs with a needle. A little bit of pain and a big bruise later, they’d get half a gram to a gram of tissue. After he decided capitalize on surplus tissue from cosmetic surgery, his team has collected about 6 kilograms (or over a dozen pounds) of human fat.
  • In San Diego, a cell therapy clinic called Cytori is working on recycling fat for breast reconstruction. They’ve just processed their 3,000th sample of fat, for a grand total of more than 5,000 pounds over 9 years.
  • The L’Oréal Predictive Evaluation Center near Lyon is, in short, a skin factory. It tests for things that could irritate our skin using artificial human skin. And to make skin, you need real skin, specifically the kind removed during breast and tummy reductions. The reconstructed product, called Episkin, appeals to consumers because it protects animals; and it appeals to the industry because it’s human-ish and offers a more accurate reading than testing cosmetics on rabbits. It’s sent to companies around the world to test their products.

So, what about the donors, who are largely anonymous and unpaid? Most are happy to donate, such as this patient:

“I certainly didn’t feel attached to it. I was glad it was gone, and I’d rather that – a cosmetic surgery procedure which is something you choose – than blind beagles.” It appealed to her sense of thrift – her swags of unwanted flesh being put to good use. Nor did she mind a part of herself travelling to research labs around the world. But as soon as money entered the equation with the realisation that her cells could become a commodity, she became less clear. “That’s kind of strange,” she says.

There’s an intrinsic unfairness about companies making money out of people’s tissue, one researcher acknowledges, “but to say you have to pay a specific amount of money to the donor would strangle very good research.”

Discover adds this thought:

Rebecca Skloot’s 2010 book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks dealt sensitively and intelligently with this very issue. HeLa cells taken from a woman dying of cancer have been used in Nobel prize-winning research and made millions for biomedical companies. Her own children had no idea about any of this before Skloot contacted them to research her book.

[Via The Telegraph, Discover]

Image of tummy tuck via Flickr

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Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure