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Native People's DNA Being Illegally Sold On Internet, Brazil Charges

by Stephen Leahy and Mario Osava

Gene Piracy of Third World

(IPS) RIO DE JANEIRO-- The Brazilian government has asked Interpol, the international police, to intervene in what it says is the illegal sale of genetic material from its Native peoples by a U.S. research center.

Living cells from individual members of Karitiana and Surui Indians, as well as other South and Central American Native groups, are available for $85, purchased through the Internet from the Coriell Cell Repositories, a division of Coriell Institute for Medical Research.

The cells are intended to be used for research purposes only, says the independent, not-for-profit, biomedical research institute, based in the northeastern U.S. city of Camden, New Jersey.

Mercio Pereira, president of Brazil's National Indigenous Peoples Foundation (FUNAI), asked the federal police to investigate the matter in October.

The Brazilian embassy in Washington is attempting to have the information for selling the Indians' genetic material removed from the Coriell website, said a spokesperson from the Foreign Relations Ministry.

This is not the first time Brazil has protested such sales. In the late 1990s Coriell made this same type of genetic material available for sale. FUNAI threatened to suspend all biomedical research authorizations with indigenous peoples. Native groups, meanwhile, filed a formal complaint about the practice.

Pat Mooney, of the non-governmental ETC Group (Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration), and other civil society organizations oppose corporations patenting plants and animals, and other practices that they consider "biopiracy."

In this case, "while DNA and genes from indigenous peoples are not being patented, the information obtained from their genetic material is being turned into patentable drugs," Mooney said in an interview with Tierramerica.

The Coriell Repository has the world's largest collection of human cell cultures, with nearly a million vials of cells. These cells are obtained from blood or skin samples and can be kept alive indefinitely at extremely low temperatures.

DNA obtained from the cells is used by medical researchers to investigate potential medical treatments for cancer, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, Down syndrome, heart disease and others, according to the Coriell website.

Since 1964, 120,000 cell samples and nearly 100,000 DNA samples have been shipped to scientists in 55 countries. The sale of genetic material for research is legal under United States law.

For the most part researchers at Coriell did not collect the original blood and skin samples themselves. Instead these samples have been "deposited" in the Coriell cell bank by other research centers and individual scientists.

The core question is whether the samples from the Karitiana and Surui peoples were obtained with the full and informed consent of the individuals and of the Brazilian government.

Another matter is whether there are guarantees in place to ensure equitable distribution of the knowledge and profits generated from the samples.

Coriell did not respond to several attempts by Tierramerica to seek comment.

For more than a decade FUNAI has been aware that blood samples taken from the Karitiana and Surui have ended up in the hands of foreign companies or institutions, even though the agency did not approve any sample collection efforts, said FUNAI executive Raimundo Jose Lopes, who filed the investigation request with Interpol.

Brazilian doctor Hilton Pereira da Silva was accused in federal court in 2002 of collecting blood samples from Karitiana Indians in 1996 without the proper authorization. He did so as part of a film project and with the excuse that he took the samples to diagnose illnesses, says Maria Cecilia Filipini, a lawyer with the Catholic Indigenist Missionary Council in the Amazon state of Rondonia.

The lawsuit against the doctor, filed by the government, is moving slowly because of difficulties in questioning Pereira da Silva, who apparently now lives in the United States. Prosecutors discovered that he had ties with the foreign pharmaceutical industry and suspect that he illegally sold the Indians' genetic material.

"It would be strange" for a doctor to head a team of filmmakers and also carry equipment to collect blood samples, Filipini said in a Tierramerica interview.

It is not known if Coriell is selling that blood, but officials have recovered just 53 samples of a total believed to reach 160.

FUNAI has tried to impede the illegal collection of genetic material through tight control over access to indigenous territories by researchers. "Brazilian researchers have complained about this," said Lopes.

Any research -- Brazilian or foreign -- in Native territories must be approved by the Ministry of Science and Technology's national development council and other state institutions.

FUNAI is supposed to consult with Native groups before any research begins and only if they agree does the work proceed, and remains under the agency's supervision, says Claudio Romero, FUNAI coordinator of studies and research.

Thanks to modern technology, 40-year-old blood samples from Brazil and Venezuela's Yanomami peoples are still being traded between researchers, as are samples from the Ticuna, a Native group from Brazil's far west, collected in the mid-1970s, writes Bruce Albert, research director of the Research Institute for Development, which has offices in Sao Paulo and Paris.

The Ticuna Indians' cells have been incorporated into a major tool for immunology research, and one the world's largest pharmaceutical corporations has used them to delve into the genetics of the human immune system, Albert notes in the journal "Public Anthropology: Engaging Ideas 2001."

Native peoples "should be treated as fully respected social partners, not as natural 'populations' for gene mining," Albert concludes.

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Albion Monitor November 19, 2004 (

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