Saturday, December 8, 2007

HMEC, immortal cell lines

In 1979 a project called the "Characterization of Human Mammary Cells," was started by Dr. Margaret R. Stampfer at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Over the years, funding was provided by the Department of Energy: Office of Health and Environmental Research and from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). They collected human milk in order to obtain the epithelial cells called Human Milk Epithelial Cells (HMEC). These cells were also obtained from "reduction mammoplasties, biopsies, gynecomastias, and mastectomies." in 1985 Dr. Stampfer filed a patent with the United States of America (Department of Energy) becoming the assignee (owner). Patent # 4808532 is called, "Continuous human cell lines." It states, "The invention relates generally to human cell lines useful for testing potentially mutagenic or carcinogenic agents, and in particular relates to continous cell lines developed from human mammary epithelial cells." The US government owns these cells lines. We owe a debt of gratitude to the women who donated their milk and in many cases their mammary tissue so that the government could test toxins in our environment. Margaret Stampfer donated much time and these cell lines to various researchers around the country. But I often wonder if the fixation on the environment and breast milk has more to do with having these cell lines. If you have easy access to testing toxins with a particular immortal cell line, then your view is narrowed to those cells, that particular organ. Of course the question might be did the donors realize that patenting would occur, that the government would own their cells? And while this for sure benefits our knowledge about toxins in the environment, it also seems to make us fixated on toxins in breastmilk. Instead of a broad picture of toxins, we have narrowed our view.
I just recently ran across another human cell line owned by the US Government and Nestle. Now that is interesting. The US Government as represented by the Department of Health filed in 1992 a patent called "Immortalized human cell lines containing exogenous cytochrome P450." (patent # 5356806). This cell line is of the bronchial epithelial cell, nothing to do with human milk cell lines. But fascinating that a patent on immortal cell lines would be owned by the US Department of Health and Nestle. "Show me the money." Are partnerships between a government and industry a good deal for the consumer and for a democratic society? Seems like we think its a good idea. We seem to take these things for granted. But then we have to understand why breastfeeding takes a back seat to the infant formula industry...

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