Activists and Scientists Clash over Genome Project (Aboriginal Activists Lobbying to Restrict Research on Indigenous Cell Lines as Part of the International Human Genome Diversity Project)

By Muldrew, Fiona | Herizons, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview
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Activists and Scientists Clash over Genome Project (Aboriginal Activists Lobbying to Restrict Research on Indigenous Cell Lines as Part of the International Human Genome Diversity Project)


Muldrew, Fiona, Herizons


WINNIPEG) Aboriginal activists are lobbying to restrict genetic research on Indigenous cell lines being conducted as part of the Internatioal Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP). Scientists and anthropologists who are part of the HGDP are collecting blood, tissue and hair samples from hundreds of Indigenous populations as part of the largest genetic research project in the world.

Debra Harry, a Northern Paiute activist from Nevada, warned a Winnipeg audience recently of the "potential for manipulation of life, violation of the natural integrity of humans, and commercialization of life forms" resulting from the genetic research on Indigenous people.

Referred to by critics as The Vampire Project, the HGDP's mandate includes storing the DNA of disappearing Indigenous populations for future study, reconstructing the history of the world's populations, and determining the origins of existing populations. Once blood samples are stored in gene banks, however, unlimited amounts of DNA can be generated for unlimited experiments.

Pharmaceutical companies are eagerly waiting to profit from the sale of drugs, vaccines or treatments for diseases that might be made from Indigenous cell lines.

Harry told a University of Manitoba Engineering class on Aboriginal People, Science and the Environment, that the HGDP is "a new wave of colonialism at the molecular level. They've taken our land and water resources, now they want to mine our genetic resources."

The U.S. government has already filed three patents for the cell lines of Indigenous people from the Solomon Islands, Panama, and Papua New Guinea. International protests, concerns about the invasion of sovereignty of Indigenous nations, and lack of informed consent led to the withdrawal of two patents. However, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce has refused to return genetic samples to the Solomon Islands, stating that the source of genetic samples is not legally relevant under existing patent laws.

In March, 1995, the U.S. government obtained a patent for the cell line of a Hagahai man of Papua New Guinea, which gives the U.S. exclusive property rights over "inventions" made from Hagahai cell lines over the next 17-20 years. The 260 member Hagahai Nation only came into consistent contact with the outside world 12 years ago, but they've been catapulted into the genetic age to fight for their survival against new diseases.

Harry, part of the Indigenous Peoples Biodiversity Network, says that patents should not be extended over life forms. She adds that many Indigenous people are opposed to Western science that manipulates the natural world order through genetic technology and discounts Indigenous knowledge and respect for the interrelatedness of life systems.

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Activists and Scientists Clash over Genome Project (Aboriginal Activists Lobbying to Restrict Research on Indigenous Cell Lines as Part of the International Human Genome Diversity Project)
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