Sun, Aug 12, 2007 - Page 8 News List

Letters: Did Biobank secure consent?

Recent public relations efforts by Taiwanese scientific elites to relaunch the Taiwan Biobank have included the signing of an agreement by five universities including Kaohsiung Medical University, which proclaimed its highest commitment to the Biobank's ELSI (Ethical, Legal and Social Implications) considerations while pledging to help improve Aboriginal health -- a familiar PR line.

But let us consider Ko Ying-chin (葛應欽), who in addition to his position as vice president of Kaohsiung Medical University, is also arguably one of the most influential members of the Biobank's implementation committee with regard to Aboriginal health issues.

A National Health Research Institute member, he has co-authored more than 180 articles in scientific journals, including more than 20 on Aboriginal health issues. He has received awards for advancing Aboriginal health from President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and the Council of Indigenous Peoples.

Yet Ko has for years promoted implicitly racist biomedical conceptions of Aborigines as genetically dysfunctional, such as in an April 23, 1998, Central News Agency story in which he claimed Aborigines were "genetically predisposed to alcoholism" as part of his support for government anti-alcoholism intervention in Aboriginal communities.

Furthermore, a little-known but major precedent for Taiwan Aboriginal genetics research -- which results in a severe conflict of interest for Ko's participation in the Biobank -- is his US Patent Application Number 20050170387 filed with Li Shu-chuan (李淑絹) entitled "Gout related genetic locus."

The application begins: "The present invention relates to a gout related gene locus located in the genomic region of about 90 cM to about 150 cM on chromosome 4, which region is flanked by genome markers D4S2361 and D4S1644."

The patent application claims this genetic location and a method of testing in this region for "propensity to gout." The application does not identify which Aboriginal people is involved, only that: "The present invention provides the findings of a genome-wide linkage study on 21 multiplex gouty pedigrees from an isolated highland aboriginal tribe in Taiwan."

The application is based on research findings described in a 2004 paper in The American Journal of Human Genetics entitled "Genomewide Scan for Gout in Taiwanese Aborigines Reveals Linkage to Chromosome 4q25."

This paper also doesn't specify which Aborigines were involved in the research, only that an earlier 2004 article, "Complex Segregation and Linkage Analysis of Familial Gout in Taiwanese Aborigines," dealt with this group. This earlier article states the subjects were Atayal Aborigines.

All of this raises crucial questions: While claiming Atayal participants gave informed consent to participate, did Ko and Li gain their consent before filing the patent? If not, would that constitute a violation of Section 21 of the Aboriginal Basic Law, seeing as Aboriginal consent to take part in academic research is different from being research subjects in a patent application? What rights do the Aboriginal participants have?

Ko and Li's patent application, which may have significant commercial potential, is the first to my knowledge that is based primarily on Taiwan Aboriginal genetics research. Is this not a crucial precedent containing a conflict of interest and therefore in need of debate?

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