Foreskin Bio-Colonialism?

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Soft as a baby's …

In South Africa, the Times Live is reporting a bioethical controversy over using foreskins taken from circumcised babies in making cosmetics. No, really. In fact, some cosmetics companies do derive skin cells known as fibroblasts, a cell in connective tissue that produces collagen and other fibers, from discarded foreskins. Back in 2009, Scientific American reported:

And at least one company is searching for the fountain of youth in baby foreskins—yes, we're talking about that flap of skin sliced away during male circumcision.

About 150 patients in the U.K. have already received injections of Vavelta, a foreskin-derived skin treatment aimed at rejuvenating and smoothing skin withered with age or damaged by scarring from acne, burns and surgical incisions, according to a spokesperson for Intercytex, PLC, the Cambridge, England-based company that makes the product. …

Each vial of Vavelta (enough for treating about four square centimeters of skin, roughly the size of a U.S. postal stamp) consists of about 20 million live fibroblasts—cells that produce a skin-firming protein called collagen, which becomes increasingly scarce with age. Fibroblasts also make elastin, a protein that allows the skin to  snap back to its original shape after being pulled or stretched like a rubber band, as well as hyaluronic acid, which locks moisture in the skin, keeping it supple and plump.

The fibroblasts in Vavelta are isolated from the foreskins taken from baby boys, given several months to grow and multiply in the lab, and then packaged into treatment vials that are shipped to a select group of U.K. physicians. Each vial costs approximately 750 pounds, or $1,000], according to the company spokesperson.

So what is supposedly happening in South Africa? The Times Live reports:

The KwaZulu-Natal department of health said last year that from April 2012 it would, for the first time, offer circumcision as an option to 10% of the mothers of male babies born in public hospitals.

Until now babies have been circumcised for religious or medical reasons.

The decision has raised the ire of the Medical Rights Advocacy Network's bioethics forum which says that a potential 2.3 million foreskins are at stake. …

"Africa may be viewed as the new source of discarded virgin foreskins to sustain a multi-million-dollar industry. Discarded human foreskins are used in the cosmetics industry, in the manufacture of insulin and artificial skin," the Medical Rights Advocacy Network warns in the letter. …

…Mary de Haas, who is co-chairman of the bioethics forum and a research fellow at the University of KwaZulu-Natal's school of law, said: "There have been cases in the US where people steal them from the bins because of the commercial value.

"We are worried that pushing for circumcision means that there are vested commercial interests," she said.

De Haas said the increasing global trade in human tissues was a type of "bio-colonialism".

Interestingly, one blog commenter notes that South African law makes it illegal to circumcise female children at all or male children under age 16 without their permission unless it done in conformity with religious practices. 

Back in 1990, the Calfornia Supreme Court ruled in the case of Moore v. Regents of the University of California that a patient did not own tissues and cells removed from his body that were later used to create a lucrative cell line. Various biobanks do offer cells derived from neonatal foreskins for sale

See also my former colleague Radley Balko's 2008 post on this topic here. And my colleague Tim Cavanaugh's reporting on the "intactivist" campaign to ban circumcision in San Francisco.