Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Blood samples back to Yanomamo

The name of Yanomamo is often associated with controversies in anthropology (see here and here). But for a change, here is a positive step being taken to repair some of the relations with the Yanomamo tribe: Researchers will return 40-year old blood sample taken from the tribe members. From Science:
Now, in an agreement being worked out by Brazil, he and others are pulling tissue samples out of storage and preparing to have them shipped back to the jungle.
Weiss says he accepted the vials years ago as a favor to his postdoctoral adviser James Neel, who was retiring and wanted them preserved. Along with cultural anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, Neel collected the samples from the Yanomamö in Brazil and Venezuela during fieldwork in the 1960s and early 1970s, and they've been stored since then in labs around the United States. (Neel died in 2000.) Weiss and others will be releasing parts of their collections to the Brazilian Embassy in Washington, D.C., which in turn will escort them back to Brazil and the Yanomamö tribe. Venezuela has not asked for samples taken from its Yanomamö tribes, Weiss says.
The return marks at least the third time that an indigenous group has retrieved DNA or other tissue from scientists, suggesting a shifting landscape in genetics studies on indigenous people.
There are still some interesting problems associated with the return:
Researchers and diplomats alike want to ensure that the samples are safe and free of contaminants. That's easier said than done. The usual approach—heating material at very high temperatures—would cause the vials to explode. A suggestion to sterilize some samples with bleach was rejected, says Karen Pitt, special assistant for biological resources at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), which holds 477 vials. NCI is investigating the possibility of irradiating them. "We'd like to accelerate this," says Pitt.
Still, I think this effort is a step in the right direction. Yes, there was no "Informed Consent" procedure forty years ago, but now we do have stricter procedures in place - so why not follow them more consistently. Just a few months ago, I had posted about the contentious DNA research involving the Havasupai tribe. However, in general, it seems that scientists are becoming more sensitive to issues involving indigenous tribes and is pointed out in the Science article:
Scientists are increasingly trying to accommodate demands from indigenous groups. Three years ago, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research in Ottawa released new recommendations for aboriginal research requesting, among other things, that research be of benefit to the community, that researchers translate their publications into the language of the community, and that researchers get consent before transferring samples to a colleague.
"If you have a sample in your lab, you have been loaned it, you haven't been given it," says Laura Arbour, a medical geneticist at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, in Canada who helped craft the Canadian guidelines. Arbour, who works with Canadian aboriginal populations, believes they should be treated as collaborators and shown drafts of papers prior to publication, something she routinely does in her own genetics work.
"I don't object" to this approach in principle, says Kenneth Kidd, a population geneticist at Yale University, but it would make research "a lot more difficult." He and his wife, Judith Kidd, have amassed 3000 samples from 57 populations over the years. It would be virtually impossible to find a nomadic tribe from whom samples were collected a decade ago and share a planned publication, he says.
I think the idea of shared publication is excellent! In any case, read the full article here.

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