Bioethics for Breakfast: Biobanking Tissue: Trash or Treasure?

Bioethics for Breakfast Seminars in Medicine, Law and SocietyJennifer Carter-Johnson, PhD, JD, and Tom Tomlinson, PhD, presented at the Bioethics for Breakfast event on December 6, 2018, offering their perspectives and insight on the topic “Biobanking Tissue: Trash or Treasure?”

“Big data”—repositories of biological, medical and demographic information about large numbers of people—is a critical platform for discovery of the causes of disease and potential new avenues for its treatment.

This data must come from us, the general public. Data about you might end up in a biobank because you’ve generously agreed to provide it, perhaps by agreeing to join the National Institutes of Health’s All of Us project that aims to recruit a broad representative sample of one million Americans.

Or it might already have been provided for use in research without your knowledge or consent. Research using specimens and medical information collected during your clinical care, once de-identified, doesn’t count as research on a “human subject” under the Federal regulations. Thus, your consent is not required. This source probably provides the great majority of information used in big data research, and acquiring and distributing it has become a multimillion dollar business.

This practice raises a host of questions. Doesn’t my specimen and my medical information belong to me, rather than to the hospital or clinic that collects it? Or have I thrown it away like my trash sitting on the curb each week? Although many people may feel comfortable providing this information for research, others might not. So isn’t it a simple act of respect to ask first? Or are researchers simply the medical equivalent of college students dumpster diving for cheap furniture that has been thrown away? Additionally, if we ask, and too many people say “no,” won’t critical research be hampered, to the detriment of all of us?

Dr. Tomlinson asked attendees to consider this question: Should clinically-acquired specimens and other medical information be treated like the trash that you have no control of once it has left your curb?

Dr. Tomlinson referred to a national study that his research team conducted in 2014 regarding willingness to give blanket consent, focusing on the fact that people care about more than risk – they have concern about how their materials may be used, and they worry about how much they should trust the research establishment. Dr. Tomlinson’s overarching argument was that respect for persons, a fundamental bioethics principle, requires informed consent.

Dr. Carter-Johnson also offered a question: whose treasure is it? Biospecimens and related data can be donated by patients and the public, can be clinically collected de-identified materials, and they can be samples given to private companies like 23andMe or Ancestry.com. Dr. Carter-Johnson also discussed a new startup offering to sequence your genome for free, and highlighted the variety of health and fitness apps that we give our data too. “When something is free, you are the product,” she said. A show of hands revealed that a minority of the attendees had gotten their DNA sequenced.

Dr. Carter-Johnson offered a legal perspective on tissue and genetic data in relation to property and privacy rights. She explained that individuals do not own their own tissue, citing the cases Moore v. Regents of California and Greenberg v. Miami Children’s Hospital Research Institute. However, there have been exceptions, and there are legal ways to “sell” your body (think plasma, bone marrow, sperm, or clinical trials).

When discussing privacy, Dr. Carter-Johnson used 23andMe and Ancestry.com’s privacy policies as examples. These policies are contractual, they are updated frequently, and they are often ignored by the consumer. However, push from consumers as well as bioethicists have led to these policies being more available and accessible.

Audience discussion brought up the famous Henrietta Lacks case, the future of biobank donor policies, and newborn screening programs and biobanks.

Jennifer Carter-Johnson, PhD, JD
Jennifer Carter-Johnson is an Associate Professor of Law at the Michigan State University College of Law and holds both a JD and a PhD in Microbiology. Professor Carter-Johnson uses her interdisciplinary training to study the intersection of law and scientific research.

Tom Tomlinson, PhD
Tom Tomlinson was Director of the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences from 2000 to 2018, and is a Professor in the Department of Philosophy. He chairs the Ethics Committee at Sparrow Health System, and has published widely on the ethics of biobank-based research.

About Bioethics for Breakfast:
In 2010, Hall, Render, Killian, Heath & Lyman invited the Center for Ethics to partner on a bioethics seminar series. The Center for Ethics and Hall Render invite guests from the health professions, religious and community organizations, political circles, and the academy to engage in lively discussions of topics spanning the worlds of bioethics, health law, business, and policy. For each event, the Center selects from a wide range of controversial issues and provides two presenters either from our own faculty or invited guests, who offer distinctive, and sometimes clashing, perspectives. Those brief presentations are followed by a moderated open discussion.

About Michigan State Bioethics

Devoted to understanding and teaching the ethical, social and humanistic dimensions of illness and health care since 1977.
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