Who owns your cells?

Property rights get messy when DNA is involved

Sarah Kearns


University of Michigan

Scattered around your house or apartment, lightly coating the surface of your coffee table and lurking in the nooks and crannies of each room, are millions of your skin and hair cells. There are so many, you likely don't even notice them, or feel any ownership over these lost biological bits of yourself. But what if someone came into your house and took them?

A cell is the fundamental unit of life – machinery to respond to external stimuli, replicate, and eat are all packaged within this tiny membranous bundle. Within a particular sub-compartment called the nucleus, DNA, the genetic sequence that codes for cellular material in your entire body, is kept. Cells come together to form tissues, organs, and full organisms, with humans composed of an arrangement of trillions of coordinated cells of many types: muscle, hair, skin, nerve, muscle… the list goes on and on. Research on particular cell types, obtained from human samples and cultured in labs, has advanced scientists' understanding of human health and disease from cancers to autoimmune and neurodegenerative diseases.

This slightly changes our question: if a scientist had your cells, would you care? Would you hand over this discarded part of yourself for the greater good? And are these cells even yours in the first place?

Setting legal grounds

Back in the mid-1950s, a patient with cervical cancer had her tumor biopsied to make a diagnosis. To try and understand cancer, these abstracted cells were kept and cultured. Unlike those studied before, these cells never died — previous cell samples would wither and stop replicating after a few weeks or months, making long-term studies on tissues difficult. But these cells had a particular cancerous mutation that allowed them to flourish. Named after the African American woman they were obtained from, Henrietta Lacks, this cell line – “HeLa,” as it is abbreviated – is still used for medical research today. However, neither Henrietta nor any of her family members consented to the prolonged use of her cells. As such, the past 60 years or so of research, including the development of the polio vaccine, relied on the cervical cells taken from an uninformed and underprivileged patient. It wasn’t until 20 years after Henrietta’s death that her family was finally flooded with the news that, while she was dead, her cells were alive. Not only that, companies were mass producing her cells and distributing them across the globe for a huge profit without the Lackses seeing a single penny.

grey microscope image of HeLa cells

HeLa cells are still dividing in labs around the world


Henrietta and her family are not the only ones who have encountered ambiguity in cellular ownership. In the mid-1970s, John Moore suffered from hairy-cell leukemia, a rare form of cancer where white blood cells grow hair-like projections. Part of the cancer’s pathology caused his spleen, an organ responsible for recycling worn-out blood cells that’s typically on the order of one pound, to enlarge to 14 pounds, clogged with hairy white blood cells. As in Henrietta’s case, a surgeon removed his cancerous cells to study the mutated pathway causing this unique cancer, naming and patenting John Moore’s cell line “Mo cells.” But unlike Henrietta’s disease, John’s went into remission and after the surgery, he sued his doctor for failing to obtain informed consent.

Property rights in these cases are not straightforward, however. Even though in both of these incidents the cells themselves were taken under false pretenses, the subsequent research and intellectual property derived from the cells is neither Henrietta’s nor John’s. Using ends to justify the means, the proceedings from the studies only occurred because of the research, and not the cells on their own. Especially since both cancerous HeLa and Mo lines have been duplicated trillions of times since first being removed, the original cells don’t exist anymore anyway because they have divided and replicated.

That said, the genetic material contained in the nucleus originated from their cells and is unique to them. This doesn’t change the conversation, but it switches the question again, slightly: who owns genetic content like DNA?

Mining your personal code

Genetic companies, popular with people looking for clues into their family histories, collect and analyze participants’ data from their DNA to perform their service. Most of these test kits require just a cotton swab of the inside of your cheek, which collects enough cells to be able to determine your genetic code. Within paperwork involved to obtain and use some kits, whether or not you read and understood the terms and conditions, you give consent to have your results archived and cataloged. This results in your unnamed information and identity plastered on databases for their contents to be mined and hauled by big data analytics.

While the knowledge that one’s biological identity is openly available unnerves many, the accessible records are often used for good. Massively mining genetic content is used for prognostic diagnostics and to identify global health trends. Through pattern-matching, genetic sequencing companies have a chance of finding causes and markers of disease which could lead to early diagnosis and treatment or prevention. For example, if you sequenced your DNA, it could be compared with others’ in the databank to determine risk for cancer or diabetes. Big data analytics can be used to improve healthcare, disease treatment, and quality of care with analytic algorithms and data modeling. 

gloved hand holding petri dish with pink liquid in a lab

Biomedical waste or gold mine? 

Photo by Drew Hays

Along with health-related uses, genetic data is frequently used in a forensic context, where DNA evidence is used to identify criminals. Big genetics data is a new method recently used to find California’s Golden State Killer, who was at large in the ’70s and ’80s. Evidence from the cold case contained discarded materials with traces of the killer’s DNA. Screening this against archived genomes, there was a familial match that led the police to find and arrest the guilty Joseph DeAngelo. While the conviction is viewed as a success, having finally ended a hunt of a man who killed or abused more than 50 people across California, it still raises the same serious questions about civil liberty and ownership of one’s cells and genetic content.

Having the right to know

From Lacks' cells to commercially available genetic kits, ownership comes down to knowing when your biological property is available to be legally owned by someone else, and having the informed consent to share it. In a time when African American patients, particularly female ones, were treated poorly in mid-1950s Baltimore, Lacks’ impoverished family was unfortunately not given any information concerning the location of HeLa cells, let alone any clues to her death; most members of her family were not even told what a cell is. In the cases of both HeLa and Mo cells, neither person was aware of the potential commercial applications of the subsequent cell line. Instead, hospitals and industries made millions off of maintaining cell cultures of the replicated human cells, with one vial of cells selling for hundreds to thousands of dollars each. During the Golden State Killer case, it’s been made clear that genetic profiling of an individual can occur even without their DNA. If one of your relatives spits into a vial for sequencing they are giving up a bit of your own genetic information, along with theirs, without your consent.

cartoon of patient and doctor tugging DNA

A biological tug-of-war between researchers and patients

Sierra Nishizaki

Still, courts favor the idea that biological content does not belong to the individual. The Lackses have not been compensated for Henrietta’s cells by the hospitals, though grants through a private foundation have gone to family members' healthcare and education. Additionally, the United States Supreme Court ruled in 1990 that Moore’s discarded samples were not his personal possession. Though new guidelines surrounding biological property have been created, laws around genetic data that favor privacy are still lacking. For example, a recent ruling in California following the Golden State Killer case supported law enforcement’s ability to use DNA databases to solve cold cases.

A significant point of contention is the commercialization of cell lines or other biological samples taken from patients. When hospitals or research institutions make on the order of a hundred dollars per sample sold, people like Moore and the Lackses feel as though they’ve been conned out of their potential. In the late 1990’s, the Council of Europe constructed a treaty to protect against the misuse of biological and medical advances, stating that a biological sample taken from a patient “may be stored and used for a purpose other than that for which it was removed, only if this is done in conformity with appropriate information and consent procedure.” This includes samples like tissues, organs, and blood, but not of hair, nails, or skin. Similarly, the American Medical Association requires physicians contemplating the commercial use of human tissue to disclose applications of the sample to the patient, and suggests they share profits from commercialization. That said, this requirement isn’t enforced by any laws and so is more of a suggested guideline.

Along with monetary gains, cells and DNA have another significant value: data. Biological data has a significant impact on global health trends, criminology, and personal diagnostics. With that comes the potential for your data to be used against you. Some companies like 23&Me are at least making it clear that “genetic information you share with others could be used against your interests,” as they warn in their terms of service, sounding very much like Miranda rights. This type of explicit wording had previously been absent, leading to decades of uninformed consent. Especially with personal data being mined continuously with the growing use of wearable devices like FitBits that track biological information from activity, to sleep, to diet, there’s increasing need for users to understand where and how that data is being used. Some insurance companies are even asking for that data with the claim that it’ll help lower rates – but what if your data shows that you have a preexisting condition or aren’t perfectly healthy? Will that impact your insurance?

With stakes high on both sides, either your biological data could be used to help treat diseases and catch a killer or used by health insurance companies to increase rates, at the very least people should know what they – and their cells – are getting themselves into.

A version of this story appeared on MiSciWriters.

Comment Peer Commentary

We ask other scientists from our Consortium to respond to articles with commentary from their expert perspective.

Farah Qaiser

Molecular Genetics

University of Toronto

Great piece! This actually reminds me of the Peerenboom vs. Perlmutter legal case, where at one point, Peerenboom allegedly collected Perlmutter’s DNA by taking their water bottle one day during a deposition. This then prompted the Perlmutters to sue Peerenboom for conversion (i.e. stealing their DNA), so it prompts the question: who really owns your DNA? And is the onus on the individual to safeguard their DNA at all times? 

(I can’t find a clear ruling on the case - it seems to be going on, along with other lawsuits between the two, for its 5th or 6th year now.)

Laetitia Meyrueix

Nutrition and Epigenetics

University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill

This is a really great piece! I wrote something very similar back in undergrad for an ethics class. I did not have the chance to connect the stories between genetic information and cell ownership. So I really appreciate that addition.

When I wrote my paper, I took a sort of libertarian stance on the issue following the idea of self-ownership. You mentioned how property rights are not straightforward with cells, and I found the ideas of self-ownership to be a helpful means to start thinking about the question. Although the philosophy of self-ownership has its own issues it was a good starting point. I do appreciate that you made the distinction between CELL ownership and GENETIC ownership. I do think those two things can be very different. Although the cells themselves hold the unique genetic data.

The main counterargument that I found to the self-ownership is the right to discovery. The cases you mentioned of Henrietta Lacks and John Moore are to me morally wrong considering the lack of informed consent. However, one must pose the question that if there had been informed consent is it still right? The argument can be made that without scientists people like John Moore would not have known the value of their cells/genetic material. So do scientists have the so called “right to discovery”.

The legal situation with this is also complicated. For example, scientists can patent things that they created in the lab. However, if you discover something what are the options? Who gets the credit? All important questions.

Your last bit about the data that comes with FitBits, for example, is something I had not entirely considered as of yet. There is a lot of potential with that sort of data and more and more scientific studies are looking to add FitBit data into the story. Although it is unlikely that something spectacular will be discovered from just ONE person’s data, it does raise questions of how can that information be used against you.

Great piece!

Brittney Borowiec

Environmental Physiology

McMaster University

Great job covering this! Solving these kinds of big ethical questions is going to be an important step in bringing new science to market and general use in society. With new techniques, we’re learning how to do things we would have never dreamed of doing only a few years ago, like genome editing. Suddenly impossible questions - will it be legal to “edit” your baby? - become much more than thought experiments. We need to be ready - socially and politically - for new scientific discoveries.

For a personal standpoint, I think I’m in the camp of personal ownership of cells, and allowing them to be donated like organs. I’m uneasy about attaching monetary value to them… I worry about people selling them to pay off a credit card debt, for example, or being exploited as if they were a resource like gold or palm oil. I suppose there’s already a model in sperm donation, though I’m not familiar with exactly how all that works. There are some murky waters there.

I do know that I don’t like the idea that companies can get data about me without my consent, though I’m sure with all the social media I use, there’s a lot of information out there about me somewhere (and that it’s all protected by some checkbox I clicked when signing up). I think there’s a place for science communicators here - someone has to explain in clear and simple terms what giving your data (or cells) to a company means, and its implications. Companies need to be a better job of being transparent and explaining what data they are taking and why, instead of burying it in a 20 page “terms and conditions” document of legalese.

We need some policy changes to force better communication and more transparency from companies, which have so far been quietly collecting tons of data whenever possible. We also, I think, need better protection - I don’t want my insurance company getting my 23andMe data, and jacking up my rates because I’m predisposed to some disorder. But that protection needs to make sense and still allow for innovation - doing work with humans is already a mountain of red tape, and I sympathize with scientists who have to deal with that in their work .

I heard somewhere that the FitBit database is one of the largest collections of personal health data in the world. It could do a lot of good if analyzed - we could learn a lot about what influences heart rate and risk factors. But how do you grapple with getting the consent from millions of people? Do you make all the data accessible to everyone? How do keep the useful information (like sex, weight, etc) without identifying people? We need more people thinking very carefully about these things at the intersection of science, policy, advocacy, innovation, and privacy!