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Tue, Aug 29, 2000 - Page 2 News List

Genes, ethics and Aborigines

As Taiwan begins collecting samples to create a DNA database, scientists are facing criticism over the methods they have used to obtain blood from Aborigines - blood that is now highly valued for research projects

By Liu Shao-hua  /  STAFF REPORTER

Biyc Yadawuyugana, a woman from the Tsou tribe and a member of an organization of weaving artists in Wulai, was invited to give a performance of her weaving skills outside a seminar on biodiversity and the future of Aboriginal people in this file photo from August.

PHOTO: CHEN CHENG-CHANG, TAIPEI TIMES

DNA research has been a hot issue worldwide in recent years, and one which culminated in the decoding of the DNA sequence of the entire human genome, accomplished by scientists from six countries in June.

In keeping with the global trend, Academia Sinica members last month urged the government to establish a Taiwanese gene database of Taiwan's ethnic groups for the purposes of medical research and further study of the diversity of human populations and languages.

But some researchers have expressed reservations about the plan, saying the database should be used only for disease research, not for ethnic studies, lest these give rise to political disputes.

In addition, some say the classification of ethnic groups in Taiwan is based on a biased theory in the first place, and distorts the proportions of the population that different ethnic groups in Taiwan represent.

More importantly, the ethics of genetic research is of primary concern. It has been discussed in many other countries within the past decade and recently became controversial in Taiwan, particularly among Aborigines, who some say have been subject to gene sampling more than other ethnic groups in Taiwan.

Reflections on 'Gene Hunter'

Watan (娃丹), a reporter of Taiwan-ese Aboriginal origin, participated in a UN forum on issues affecting indigenous people in 1995 and was surprised to hear a familiar story when he watched a documentary film called Gene Hunter there.

The documentary tells of a group of American and British geneticists who visited tribes of American Indians to take blood samples. They told the native peoples that the research they were conducting was for health reasons and did not reveal their actual research motives.

"I was immediately shocked," Watan said, "but it's the same in Taiwan."

"Taiwanese Aborigines have been facing the same situation for decades, but no one pointed out the ethical problems before," he said.

Chen Shu-cho (陳叔倬), currently a lecturer at Tzu Chi College of Medicine and Humanities and former assistant on various genome projects, is also aware of the potential violation of Aborigines' human rights posed by genome research.

"No researcher told the people whose blood was taken why and how their blood would in fact be used," Chen said. "Different researchers told them the same thing: that their blood was to be used for a health check," he said.

"But why should a mere health check require so much blood?" Watan and Chen asked as they recounted how, although 3ml of blood was sufficient for a health check, many researchers drew between 10ml and 20ml and divided the blood into different tubes.

Three years ago, the former provincial health bureau implemented an overall health checkup for gout and liver diseases in Aboriginal areas. The researchers drew 10ml of blood from each person and divided it into three tubes.

"One tube for a gout check, one for liver diseases, and the third tube for what?" asked Watan.

"Some research centers and medical institutions have drawn many thousands of tubes totalling tens of thousands of milliliters of blood from Taiwanese Aborigines," Aboriginal lawmaker Tsai Chung-han (蔡中涵) said.

"Aborigines on Orchid Island had the worst experience," said Aboriginal physician Kao Cheng-chi (高正治), a former National Assembly member who worked as the director of a health center on Orchid Island.

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