Biofutures: Owning Body Parts and Information

  • Robert Mitchell,
  • Helen J. Burgess &
  • Phillip Thurtle
Penn Press: 2008. $39.95, £26 (DVD-ROM) 9780812240993 | ISBN: 978-0-8122-4099-3

It is appropriate that a commentary on the possible futures and dangers associated with owning parts of the body — a discussion anchored in biology as information — should be presented as a hypertext DVD rather than as a conventional book. Biofutures deploys multimedia information sources, including video, text, interviews, film clips, web links and animations, all accessed through a central menu. The interactive format allows for nonlinear exploration of the three main themes of law, biology and culture, and users may create their own links with digital bookmarks that can be managed with password protection.

Each theme is subdivided into two chapters based on case studies that have been marked by controversy. In the law section, the case of John Moore in the United States is highlighted by the resulting dispute over the patenting of cell lines derived from his tissue. The DVD also investigates the creation of the patient lobby group PXE International to promote research on the genetic disease PXE, pseudoxanthoma elasticum, and the tensions this created between the community and individual patient rights.

Biology is discussed through the case of the Nexia spider goat, the transgenic goat that contains spider genes that produce a silk-based material in the goat's milk. The lightweight but strong 'biosteel' will make biodegradable cables with multiple industrial applications. In another case study, the use of cryonics to freeze bodies offers a chance to explore the control of biological clocks in the lab and how this relates to wider economic and financial temporalities.

The section on culture discusses the role of biology-based art as a form of science, a form of critique and a disrupter of natural boundaries. An extended commentary on the fictitious narrative of the films Jurassic Park and Resident Evil tells us about different possible futures.

Each case study takes about 30 minutes to read and listen to, with an accessible range of clips, interviews and images on each page. Pitched at undergraduate students, it is designed to be used as a teaching aid, bolstered by additional detailed reading. Most sections provide background material, often filmed in labs, such as the creation of immortal cell lines that are key to understanding the John Moore case.

The authors use their broad backgrounds in science policy, history and English literature to locate the question of body ownership within the wider fields of social science and bioethics. Their primary argument is that developments in biocommerce are best understood within the emergence of the 'information society'. Body parts and tissues, such as gene sequences and cell lines, become information products that are mobilized and gain value in the wider tissue economy.

Most importantly, the authors make the point that the tensions this creates — in terms of who should have the right to own tissue — is not specific to nor created by the advent of biotechnology. Instead, debates over ownership rights are endemic to an industrial society where knowledge and information are allowed to take on a commodifiable form, as in a patent. This is nicely captured in the case of John Moore, in which it is observed that “Moore couldn't own the cell line [because] research would stop — but if no one owned the cell line, research would also stop”. The authors explain how each case study reveals a particular aspect of the information society.

Any bioethicist would struggle to find principles that might act as an arbiter of the moral dilemmas posed by the different cases in Biofutures. Indeed, the authors steer clear of this, concluding that we need to attain a deeper understanding. There is not one biofuture but many, articulated in both dystopian and utopian images. Futures are traded as expectations that shape markets for biotech products — so the future itself becomes commodified, not just its body parts.