Is Nothing Sacred?

Gathering human genetic samples raises uneasy questions


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The goals of the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP) sound laudable: By taking DNA samples from the world's indigenous peoples, scientists will be able to document the amazing diversity -- and interconnectedness -- of human beings. Plus, any unique genes discovered -- such as the heart-attack-resistant genes that were found in the residents of an isolated Italian community -- could help fight disease.

But HGDP critics fear that the massive multinational project, which is underway in several countries, is at the least misguided and at worst, dangerous. The Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) calls the venture 'biopiracy,' likening it to widescale plundering by drug companies of medicinal plants and healing lore from indigenous communities, who see none of the profits from the quickly patented plants or resultant drugs. In RAFI's May/June 1995 communique, the group notes that scientists and their corporate partners are already pursuing gene patents in a race within the 'genomic industry' to claim and commercialize genetic material. For example, a California genomics company hopes to patent an asthma gene from samples collected from the people of Tristan da Cunha, a tiny island near Brazil where asthma rates are high. So far, the benefits doled out to residents include a machine that tells them if they've got asthma.

RAFI also worries that the projected $30 million project will divert foreign aid funds that could be better used for critical health concerns such as access to clean water, food, and vaccinations. Worse, knowledge of a peoples' unique genes could be used to develop equally unique biological weapons.

RAFI wants assurances that indigenous peoples are fully informed and participate in any economic or health benefits resulting in the research done on their bodies. In HGDP's Frequently Asked Questions, project proponents say they'll 'try to guarantee' that 'some reasonable financial benefits would flow back to the sampled population.' As for whether their funds could be better used, HGDP predicts that there's 'no reason to believe' that money would go to alleviate poverty or ill health anyway.

RAFI and other groups also have ethical concerns chief among them the question of whether or not human material should be patented. In May, notes Religion Watch (July 1995), a coalition of US religious leaders condemned the patenting of human and animal genes as a violation of the sanctity of life.

In a related controversy, two Montana Indian tribes have stopped DNA analysis of ancient hairs they consider sacred. In The Sciences (May/June 1995), researchers protest that the hairs they found in diggings should not be returned due to legislation mandating the repatriation of Indian remains. Hair is shed at the rate of 200 strands per day, they note, and its analysis could shed light on the tribes' heritage. 'American social policy,' they argue, 'is founded on the premise that the country's history and its prehistory are the common heritage of all its citizens.'