December 20, 2013

Ear Creation from Living Cells – Scientific Progress Reignites Ethical Questions

Scientists at Cornell University, led by Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering Lawrence Bonassar, have created an artificial ear using 3D Printing Technology. Their research goal is to be able to regenerate cartilage anywhere in the human body.

The science is fascinating. A camera takes a 3D image of a patient’s head, then ink containing living cells is used to formulate a custom ear that looks and acts like a natural ear.

The living cells used in the ink can be taken from the patients themselves, which is a longer and more painful process, or, as in this study, cells can be derived from collagen from rat tails combined with cartilage from cows’ ears.

The researchers, however, are looking at “ways to expand populations of human ear cartilage cells in the laboratory so that these cells can be used in the mold, instead of cow cartilage.” Could this create ethical complications, as seen in the HeLa cells used in cancer research?

Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who was the unwitting source of cells which were cultured by George Otto Gey to create the first known human immortal cell line for medical research. This is now known as the HeLa cell line. Her family members’ cells were also used in research without their consent and Henriettta’s medical records were published without consent, sparking a debate about the ethics of scientific research using human tissue.

According to the author of “The Immortal Life of Hentrietta Laks”, Rebecca Skloot:”A lot of the ethical questions raised by Henrietta’s story still haven’t been addressed today: Should people have a right to control what’s done with their tissues once they’re removed from their bodies? And who, if anyone, should profit from those tissues? Henrietta’s story is unusual in that her identity was eventually attached to her cells, so we know who she was. But there are human beings behind each of the billions of samples currently stored in tissue banks and research labs around the world. The majority of Americans have tissues on file being used in research somewhere, and most don’t realize it. Those samples come from routine medical procedures, fetal genetic-disease screening, circumcisions, and much more, and they’re very important for science—we rely on them for our most significant medical advances. No one wants that research to stop, but it’s pretty clear that many people want to know when their tissues are being used in research, and when there’s a potential for the results of such research to be used commercially. The story of Henrietta, her family, and the scientists involved put human faces on all of those issues, which can otherwise be pretty abstract.”

Bioethicist Ruth Faden wrote an op-ed piece for The Baltimore Sun several years ago in which she stated: “Happily, today, consent is regularly obtained to take tissue or other body components for research purposes. But Mrs. Lacks' story has brought new focus to many tough bioethical and public policy questions that persist. Chief among these are: What, exactly, should patients be asked to consent to if the fruits of the research are unpredictable? Should they be compensated if, years or decades later, institutions, scientists or drug companies benefit financially? Should each and every subsequent or conceivable use of human tissue require a separate consent from patients or their families? How do we protect patient privacy in such situations?”

As research continues to explode in areas such as the 3D printing of ears, will these ethical issues continue to be debated?

Learn more about this scientific breakthrough in The Cornell Chronicle or in this video.

This article was posted by The CECON Group, a science and engineering consulting firm providing experts in such fields as biomedical consulting, pharmaceutical consulting, and chemistry consulting.



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