Saturday, January 19, 2008
Imagine this scenario: you're a healthy person, no major complaints. You go for your annual physical exam, and you have a couple of blood tests--standard stuff, checking to make sure your cholesterol's ok, you're not anemic, etc. A couple of weeks go by, you get a card in the mail that says everything's fine. End of story, right?
Now imagine that the hospital or clinic has retained the blood left over from the tests your dcotor ordered. And further imagine that the hospital or clinic has what's called a biobank or biorepository--that is, a collection of stored tissue for use in research. Your DNA is extracted from the blood sample and sequenced--which means that some piece of your genotype is now known to some researcher (but not to you). In some institutions, this couldn't happen without your explicit (written) informed consent; but in others, it's standard practice that "waste tissue" from blood tests, pathology samples, etc. becomes the property of the hospital or clinic. Should informed consent be required, or is an opt-out model more appropriate?
Generally speaking, biobank participants' DNA samples aren't associated with their name, Social Security Number, street address, or other information traditionally considered "identifying"--but the reality is, nothing is a more precise identifier of who you are than your so-called genetic fingerprint. Is this worrisome?
I'd be interested to hear what others think about this--and, fair warning, I am likely to be asking more questions along these lines, as the DNA biobanking issue is on my mind a lot these days!
While I'm at it, here are two references for further reading, if you are so inclined. The Stored Tissue Issue, from Robert Weir, Robert Olick, and Jeffrey Murray, is an academic treatment of the issues. Michael Crichton's Next is an entertaining look at some of these questions--and it just happens to be a WBP Book Club selection.