Corporate Takeover of Life

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  • Book: Deadly Monopolies: The Shocking Corporate Takeover of Life Itself — And the Consequences for Your Health and Our Medical Future, by Harriet A. Washington

Harriet Washington's new book examines the ways in which the “medical-industrial complex” benefits research industries at the expense of both consumers and human research subjects.


by Osagie K. Obasagie, The American Prospect, November 17th, 2011:

"In 2010, Rebecca Skloot published The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a New York Times bestseller about a poor black woman in the late stages of cancer in 1950s Baltimore whose doctor removed cervical tissue from her without her knowledge. By remaining viable outside of Lacks’s body, the cells became “immortal” and thus quite valuable; scientists using them have been able to pursue research that would have been unimaginable beforehand, leading to achievements such as the polio vaccine and advances against cancer and Parkinson’s disease.

Skloot’s book captivated readers by revealing the story of exploitation behind the development of what have become known as “HeLa cells.” Similar episodes of scientific advancement on the backs of vulnerable subjects have been exposed before, from J. Marion Sims’s gruesome mid-19th-century experiments on black slaves that laid the groundwork for the modern field of gynecology to recently uncovered evidence that in the 1940s, U.S. researchers deliberately infected Guatemalan patients, prisoners, and soldiers with syphilis to test new medications. Yet it still can be hard to believe that any scientist could be involved in such ethically vacuous behavior as taking and distributing unsuspecting patients’ tissues without consent, acknowledgment, or compensation.

If there is a shortcoming in Skloot’s book, it’s that the singular focus on the HeLa cells’ history gives the impression that such biomedical opportunism is a relic of a bygone era. The latest book by science journalist Harriet A. Washington, Deadly Monopolies: The Shocking Corporate Takeover of Life Itself—And the Consequences for Your Health and Our Medical Future, is a reminder to think carefully about such intuitions.

Washington’s central thesis is that in the 1980s, Congress and the courts laid the foundation for a “medical-industrial complex,” which, Washington argues, benefits research industries at the expense of both consumers and human research subjects. The 1980 Bayh-Dole Act allowed universities to partner with private companies by selling and licensing the intellectual-property rights of research findings supported by federal funds. Around the same time, the U.S. Supreme Court held in Diamond v. Chakrabarty that living organisms altered or isolated by researchers are patentable.

These developments brought together the university and corporation in a manner that transformed research culture as well as its aims. Washington notes that scientists in the pre-Bayh-Dole era were surely motivated by ambitions outside of healing individuals (fame, professional recognition), but commercial success and financial rewards were not as commonly sought.

Jonas Salk, for example, was in many ways the model of pursuing science in the public interest. After developing the polio vaccine in the 1950s, Salk turned down the chance to profit from its commercialization. When journalist Edward R. Murrow asked who owned the patent, Salk famously replied, “The American people, I guess. Could you patent the sun?” Washington’s book exposes the shifting social and legal dynamics that now make Salk’s sentiment seem remarkably quaint.

Much of Deadly Monopolies explores contentious issues in modern biomedical research that have been aggravated by the field’s commercial emphasis. For example, patients’ ownership of and control over their own human tissues throughout the research endeavor have not improved as much as one might think, with law and research norms deferring substantially to scientists and research entities." (