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Human Tissue Trade has Ethical, Commercial... and Military Implications

Author: Not Specified
Publication: Not Specified
Document Dated: April 1, 1996
Date Posted: February 5, 1997


Human Tissue Trade has Ethical, Commercial...
and Military Implications

International collection and trade in human cell lines and tissues is growing rapidly and has substantial and unanticipated commercial and military implications, according to a study released today by the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI). &Quot;Thousands of human tissue samples collected from indigenous people and isolated communities around the world are now being evaluated by the biotechnology industry, academic researchers, and government institutions," Edward Hammond, principal author of the RAFI study says.

In its March/April report (RAFI Communiqué, "New Questions About Management and Exchange of Human Tissues at NIH / Indigenous Person's Cells Patented"), RAFI identifies more than a score of indigenous peoples who have been the subject of blood sampling in recent years and whose tissues are now being exchanged among medical researchers in several countries. Most disturbing, according to RAFI Executive Director Pat Roy Mooney is that "There appear to be no policy or protocol barriers - or ethical consideration - to the routine exchange of foreign human cell lines between civilian researchers in the U.S. Government and their military counterparts." RAFI has learned that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) not only share research facilities with biological warfare medical units at Fort Detrick (near Washington, DC) but that human material is routinely exchanged - sometimes without formal material transfer agreements. Fort Detrick is not only the home of medical units engaged in biological warfare research, it is also the home of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency's (DIA) unit charged with monitoring medical data gleaned from foreign populations.

Foreign Human Cell Line Patent: RAFI's discovery of the escalating commercial interest in human tissues (including "immortalized" human cells) arose from an ongoing inquiry into last year's patent by NIH of the human cell line of a 20 year old Hagahai man in Papua New Guinea (see internet sources below). RAFI sought proof of the NIH and U.S. State Department claim that it had the consent of the Hagahai and the Papua New Guinea Government to collect and export the cell line and that NIH only pursued the patent at the request of persons in Papua New Guinea. "Despite numerous requests, including FOIA, to date NIH cannot provide a single piece of paper substantiating any of its claims," says Hammond. Further, RAFI has learned that another NIH patent claim on human cells from the Solomon Islands that the State Department said had been dropped is still being called a trade secret by NIH. "The State Department told diplomats that NIH had dropped the claim; but we were advised by NIH's Freedom of Information Office that information about the cell lines is being withheld on grounds that they are a trade secret," added Hammond.

In the course of its investigation, RAFI was startled to find that the U.S. Navy had collected similar human samples from indigenous people on the Indonesian side of New Guinea and that it had obtained related samples from the Philippines and Peru. NIH scientists cited as co-inventors in the Pacific patent claims were also involved in extensive studies of human materials collected from indigenous communities in Colombia and several other parts of the world. The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has also been active in sampling human cell lines from around the world.

Biological Warfare: The breakthrough for RAFI came at Easter in April when news reports circulated that one of the co-inventors of the Solomon Islands patent claim, Dr. Carleton Gajdusek, a Nobel Laureate for his medical work in the Pacific, was arrested on charges of sexually abusing a child. Over the years, Gajdusek had brought more than 50 children from Papua New Guinea and Micronesia to the U.S., where they lived at Gajdusek's house while attending school. In the course of their investigations, the FBI searched Gajdusek's NIH office at Fort Detrick. "We remembered that Fort Detrick is not only famous for its Ebola research but also for its long history as the military's primary biological warfare research center and medical intelligence headquarters for the Defense Department," Mooney recalls. "We sought assurance from NIH and Fort Detrick that there were strict protocols and policies preventing the transfer of NIH's cell lines and data to biowarfare workers." Edward Hammond continues the story, "Instead, we were referred to Science Applications International Corporation - a private company that manages the Fort Detrick facility for both NIH and the military. SAIC made it clear that no such policies or protocols existed and that human tissue exchange was common. NIH and military authorities at Fort Detrick then confirmed this."

Commercial Connections: SAIC is a privately-held company whose Board is largely comprised of individuals who have held very senior posts in defense and intelligence agencies. Among recent Board members are the current and former Defense Secretaries and CIA Directors. SAIC also has commercial relations with at least one major gene sequencing company which has thousands of patent applications on file for human genetic materials. SAIC appears actively involved in the global search for significant human genes and viruses of interest to the pharmaceutical industry. "Fragments of human DNA have sold for as much as $70 million and some human cell line patents have been valued at more than a billion dollars," Hammond notes, "The trade in human genetic material - especially that of indigenous peoples - is rapidly accelerating, and is really just beginning. With new biotechnologies, the pharmaceutical industry can exploit human genetic diversity the same way that plant breeding companies exploit crop genetic diversity."

Actions Recommended: RAFI is rushing to make its study available today because the annual meeting of the World Health Organization (WHO) takes place this week in Geneva. "National medical authorities meeting in Geneva need to know that when they collaborate with academic or government medical researchers on human cell line studies that material could be commercialized and patented by foreign governments or corporations and that human tissues involved could be used by U.S. biowarfare scientists," Mooney insists, "As a U.N. Agency, WHO must review and strengthen its ethical codes for medical research."

The RAFI report also urges the Convention on Biological Diversity - the legally-binding international accord adopted at the 1992 Earth Summit - to accept its legal responsibility for human biological diversity and to establish strict regulations regarding its collection, exchange, and investigation. Finally, RAFI calls upon the Fourth Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention in Geneva in November to ensure that civilian medical research is kept separate from biowarfare research. "It is impossible to distinguish between offensive and defensive biowarfare research," Mooney says. In the meantime, RAFI believes that until proper protocols are in place there should be no further collection or exchange of human tissues across international borders and that initiatives such as the Human Genome Diversity Project - an international effort to collect and immortalize human cell lines from indigenous communities - should not be allowed to proceed.

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