Population genetic studies: is there an emerging legal obligation to share benefits?

Author:Sheremeta, Lorraine

The following article is an updated version of a poster presented at the HUGO Human Genome Meeting, held in Cancun, Mexico, April 27-30, 2003.


It appears that large-scale population genetic studies are the necessary next step in genomics research. Such studies promise to provide correlative data to permit researchers to understand the etiology of a vast array of complex human diseases. Simultaneously, such studies are increasingly seen as yet another mechanism for the developed world to benefit at the expense of the developing world. In fact, a recent World Health Organization Report suggests that "without explicit attention at the international level, the initial technological fruits of genomics are likely to consist primarily of therapeutic and diagnostic applications for conditions affecting large populations in rich countries." (World Health Organization, Genomics and World Health, 2002). In developed and developing countries alike, there are concerns that the pharmaceutical industry stands to gain at the expense of the population(s) from which population genetic data are derived. In light of the current interest concerning ongoing population genetic studies and an increasing interest by many countries, Canada included, in embarking on large-scale population genetic research, it is appropriate to consider the concept of benefit-sharing as a potential mechanism to assuage these concerns. It is this author's position that by virtue of common law equitable principles and developing norms in international law, including the Human Genome Organization Statement on Benefit-Sharing, that there are principled legal and ethical reasons to compel the sharing of benefits that accrue from the commercialization of the resulting data. Using the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity and the Bonn Guidelines as a model, I suggest that appropriate benefit-sharing mechanisms have been considered in the context of non-human biological materials and that these same mechanisms may be applicable in the context of international and intra-national population genetic studies.

Healthcare: An International Concern

* The International Community can no longer ignore the human health needs of the developing world.

* Increasingly, obligations are seen to be owed by the developed world to the developing world.

* Global pharma industry and HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa.

"Benefit" Defined

* A good that contributes to the well-being of an individual or a...

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