Stem cell therapy, Commoditization & 'Placenta Stew'
Louis R Godena
louisgodena at ids.net
Wed Oct 9 19:12:54 MDT 1996
Back in the grim days of Jimmy Carter, one of those multinational cosmetic
corporations sought to reassure potential customers by declaring--on behalf
of their facial cream, I believe: "You're Not Getting Older, You're
Getting Better!" Few cared to remark that since the first half of this
flattering equation was demonstrably false, it followed that the second
half might be wrong, too.
You're getting older. You're getting worse.
No matter. Commoditization always implies a giant step in abstract
thought, in science as in everything else, in that the distinct objects
are seen as both economically similar and physically different, the
difference and the similarity both being prerequisites for trade. Before
exchange can be completely commoditized and before exchange values can
emerge as an objective economic property of goods, exchange must be
intense and frequent enough for the laws of scale to operate. The
commoditization of health emerged at precisely that moment when its
organization became primarily concerned with profit and only secondarily
with the realities of meeting people's needs.
New developments in the procurement of stem cells ("mother cells" from which
all human blood is formed) have thrown into sharp relief both the rapid
commoditization of science and the generalization of scientific labor under
Many stem cell purification methods are thought to include in the final
product second and third generation "progenitor cells" Progenitor cells,
while capable of multiplying quickly, may not be able to produce all types
of blood cells, and probably hold greater risk of malignant contamination.
New technologies developed over the past two years, however, have
substantially decreased that possibility. And risks of contamination are
correspondingly rare in the extraction of stem cells from the healthy
placentas of newborns. Increasingly, in fact, companies are turning to
this most prolific source of stem cells extant during any phase of human
development. Recently, Baxter, RPR and Glencell have all begun exploring
long term relationships with university teaching hospitals at Johns Hopkins,
Dartmouth, and Harvard in an attempt to "harvest" human placentas for
commercial stem cell extraction.
The placenta is not only a metaphor for human life, it is a microcosm of
each individual's life system, respiratory, digestive, excretory, etc.
The fetal lining of the placenta contains in fact the perfect "match" for
whatever cells that person may require throughout a lifetime. It is also
extremely high in iron and protein. Women in pre-modern times would often
consume their fetus' placenta in one form or another to facilitate recovery
after a particular debilitating birth. And legend had it at certain
medical schools before the advent of HIV that "placenta stew" would provide
the right pick-me-up at exam time.
Hospitals, in fact, would often facilitate the freezing of individual
placentas with an eye toward future cell and tissue use. This is only now
being commercially contemplated on a mass scale. For example, Brigham
and Womens' Hospital in Boston (annual caseload: 10, 000 live births) has
recently negotiated a letter of intent with Baxter to seriously explore the
systemic extraction and subsequent purification of stem cells from the
generated human placentas. And negotiations are beginning at a number of
hospitals across the country. In fact, a number of universities
themselves are now setting themselves in the biotechnology business (Boston
University's Biogen is an early and important example) and are pioneering
much of the work on stem cell purification.
These new developments will in many ways simplify the labor needed to
extract cells in their purified form. The "production" of the basic unit
itself will be largely a passive affair, requiring little intervention or
skill. Indeed, much of the labor required by this new technology will be
of the semi-skilled variety; the collection, preparation, and
transportation of human placentas from one station to another, the
maintaining of viable conditions, etc. Much of the purification routine
will be automated with relatively little human intervention. Most of the
work will probably be subsequently done overseas. Indeed, the whole
process promises to be a case study in worker deskilling and alienation.
The depersonalization of medical scientific research continues apace.
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