Organoids as hybrids: ethical implications for the exchange of human tissues

Journal of Medical Ethics 45 (2):131-139 (2019)
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Abstract

Recent developments in biotechnology allow for the generation of increasingly complex products out of human tissues, for example, human stem cell lines, synthetic embryo-like structures and organoids. These developments are coupled with growing commercial interests. Although commercialisation can spark the scientific and clinical promises, profit-making out of human tissues is ethically contentious and known to raise public concern. The traditional bioethical frames of gift versus market are inapt to capture the resulting practical and ethical complexities. Therefore, we propose an alternative approach to identify, evaluate and deal with the ethical challenges that are raised by the increasing commercialisation of the exchange of sophisticated human tissue products. We use organoid technology, a cutting-edge stem cell technology that enables the cultivation of ‘mini-organs’ in a dish, as an example. First, we examine the moral value of organoids and recognise them as hybrids that relate to persons and their bodies as well as to technologies and markets in ambiguous ways. Second, we show that commercialisation of organoids is legitimised by a detachment of the instrumental and commercial value of organoids from their associations with persons and their bodies. This detachment is enacted in steps of disentanglement, among which consent and commodification. Third, we contend that far-reaching disentanglement is ethically challenging: (1) Societal interests could be put under pressure, because the rationale for commercialising organoid technology, that is, to stimulate biomedical innovation for the good of society, may not be fulfilled; (2) The interests of donors are made subordinate to those of third parties and the relational moral value of organoids may be insufficiently recognised. Fourth, we propose a ‘consent for governance’ model that contributes to responsible innovation and clinical translation in this exciting field.

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