BIOTECH FIRM BUYS TONGA'S GENE POOL
With many human genes and cell lines now owned by corporations and patents are even being advertised on the net, thanks to Stokely for this disturbing piece of news about the latest plundering of genetic resources by private companies. It looks like once again there may have been no informed consent to this major act of biopiracy.
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AUSTRALIA: BIOTECH FIRM BUYS TONGA'S GENE POOL by Vanessa Williams
Advertiser Newspapers Limited (Adelaide) - 22 November 2000
AN AUSTRALIAN biotech company headed by Melbourne Football Club president Joseph Gutnick has secured exclusive rights to the entire gene pool of the people of Tonga.
Autogen Limited will use the genetically unique DNA of Tongans in its hunt for drugs to treat diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, cancers and ulcers.
The research, based on finding links between diseases and particular genes, could make the company hundreds of millions of dollars if it led to drugs being commercialised. The collaboration is the second of its kind in the world, following the licensing of the genes of Iceland's population to an international consortium including German pharmaceutical company Hoffmann-La Roche.
Autogen is also negotiating the same deal with other Pacific nations in a move that could make it the only company allowed to perform genetic studies on the entire Polynesian race. But it is claimed the Tongans, who number 110,000, have not been told of the deal which was signed last week. Mr Gutnick is Autogen's chairman and managing director.
The company's director of research and development, Professor Greg Collier, said yesterday the deal would bring jobs and a better-funded health system to Tongans. A research laboratory on Tonga's main island would be built next to the country's only hospital, which was government-owned.
Patients at the hospital would be requested to donate blood to Autogen, Professor Collier said. The blood would be used to extract DNA from which to form genetic pedigrees of family members in the hunt for disease-causing genes. Professor Collier denied the company was practising b"io-piracy" and said that it had followed ethical guidelines set down by the World Health Organisation.
"The Tongan Government will get royalties if anything comes of it, there will be more jobs and the population will get any drugs that come of the research for free," he said. Patients would be asked for their full, informed consent before samples were taken.
Autogen will begin collecting DNA samples from Tonga late this year or early 2001. The DNA of Tonga and other Polynesian nations are valuable to biotech companies because they are more genetically isolated than other populations, where families are made up of people of different ethnic backgrounds.
"Tonga has a lot of history in their family groupings; they know who
is related to whom," Professor Collier said. But like most Polynesians,
as they became more exposed to the Western culture and diet, Tongans began
to die of Western diseases.