March 14, 1997

Colombian Indigenous People Negotiate to get Human Tissue Samples Back

A Colombian genetics institute has offered to return its collection of thousands of samples of human tissue collected in dozens of Colombian indigenous peoples' communities. Indigenous peoples' representatives, including Colombian Senator Lorenzo Muelas and the OrganizaciÛn Nacional IndÌgena de Colombia (ONIC - National Indigenous Peoples' Organisation of Colombia), are currently negotiating the formal return of control and ownership of the samples, which are housed in a Bogot· human tissue bank. Universidad Javeriana, the lead insitution in collecting the cells, is being congratulated by indigenous peoples' organisations and NGOs for its decision to respect the wishes of tissue donors.

The cells were collected in the late 1980s and early 1990s by the Great Human Expedition", a corporate and publically-supported genetics research program that criss-crossed the country collecting blood samples from remote indigenous peoples', Afro-Colombian, and other rural communities (see RAFI Communique March/April 1996). When first asked to return the cells in mid-1996, Javeriana officials were hesitant to do so, fearing that it would slow down their research. In the end, however, Javeriana recognised the important Human Rights concerns involved and realised it could not continue working with the tissues over indigenous peoples' objections. Meetings are continuing in Bogot· to decide precisely how the tissue will be passed to indigenous peoples' control.

Indigenous peoples' representatives have also invited genetics researchers to discuss how, through legal means, ground rules can be established so that in future genetics research indigenous people and scientists can work together in an atmosphere of trust and mutual understanding in Colombia.

One key to creating such an atmosphere will be resolution of questions surrounding the international sharing of human tissue samples by researchers. In the past the sharing of samples of human tissue collected by Colombian genetics researchers with foreign laboratories - including ones that have patented human tissue - has provoked sharp criticism from indigenous people who were unaware of the arrangements. Trying to clear the air and assure transparency Muelas and ONIC have requested a complete account of transfers of Colombian tissues to foreign countries.

Human tissue exchanges are an increasingly common occurance globally (see RAFI Communique January/February 1997). The groundbeaking work of Colombian indigenous peoples, now with the cooperation of the Colombian scientific community, is being closely followed internationally."

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