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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

Why do research centers and medical institutions focus on Aboriginal blood?

The Hypothesis for Aborigines

According to geneticists worldwide, there are two reasons to target Aboriginal blood. One is that researchers believe that Aborig-ines have purer heredity than the most people in mainstream societies worldwide, which, they believe, will enable them to obtain archetypal blood samples; the other is that researchers believe that Aborigines adopted distinct means of adapting to their environments and developed specific genes for fighting diseases.

Both reasons revolve around the isolation and long histories of Aboriginal societies.

In Taiwan, the government has officially identified nine ethnic groups of Aborigines. Some independent researchers claim there are at least twelve.

The languages, cultures and physical characteristics of members of Aboriginal groups vary. Due to these differences -- including their lower social status -- from Han Chinese (the main ethnic group in Taiwan), researchers consider them to be a distinct group.

Because they are considered to be distinct, Aborigines are often targeted for research into phenomena such as liver disease and gout.

Determining whether Taiwan is the origin of Austronesian peoples, including Australian Aborigines, is another question driving researchers to target Aborigines and one to which an answer has, as yet, remained elusive.

Researchers have tried different ways to trace the origin of Austronesian peoples. Eight years ago, HLA (Human Leukocyte Antigen) research became popular as a means of investigating the ethnic, genetic and cultural proximity between human populations.

HLA is one factor that can give researchers a way to measure such proximity. Taiwanese researchers found that the HLA of Aborigines showed a very high degree of species purity, in common with that of Austronesian peoples.

Academia Sinica, at the time this type of research became popular, launched a project on kinship and cultural relationships between Taiwanese Aborigines and South-east Asian indigenous peoples. Researchers visited the tribes, with the assistance of local health centers, on the pretext of health checks, Kao said, who was officially responsible for organizing the collecting of blood on Orchid Island at the time.

Orchid Islanders are widely thought to have the closest kinship with some Austronesian populations and were considered important to the research.

Last year, Aborigines again became the target of a research project. Researchers in Pintung Christian Hospital and Kaohsiung Medical College sought their blood for AIDS research. Acting on the hypothesis that Aborigines had some genome variation that counteracted HIV, since no death from AIDS among Aborigines had ever been recorded, the researchers planned to collect blood from 40,000 Aborigines.

Some Aborigines cast doubts on this plan. They said, according to an Aboriginal physician who declined to be named, that: "One reason for the low mortality from AIDS among Aborigines was their low population in Taiwan. Besides, many people have died of other related diseases rather than AIDS itself."

The first person known to have contracted HIV in Taiwan, Han Sen (韓森), is of Aboriginal origin. He offered cultural and therapeutic interpretations instead of genetic reasons for the low mortality rate from AIDS among Aborigines.

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