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UBC Reports | Vol. 48 | No. 7 | May 2, 2002

Bio-Pirates Anger Ethicist

Exploring the pros and cons of genetic testing.

By Michelle Cook

Genetic testing is one of today's hottest news topics. Still, it is surprising to hear bioethicist Bryn Williams-Jones reveal that his research into the controversial issue began with a TV show.

Williams-Jones, who will graduate with a PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies, remembers watching a TV documentary on bio-piracy when he was a Philosophy undergraduate at McGill University.

"What got me going was an utter sense of outrage at researchers travelling to remote areas to take blood samples from tribal people, and then companies patenting their findings and profiting without giving anything back," he recalls.

The budding philosopher's new interest in genetics issues led him into a master's degree in Bioethics at McGill. He then headed to UBC to work with leading Canadian genetics and ethics expert, Prof. Michael Burgess of the Centre for Applied Ethics.

The Individual Interdisciplinary Studies Graduate Program, in the Graduate Studies Faculty, gave Williams-Jones the freedom and opportunity to reach into the realms of law, health policy and the social sciences to bring together the empirical and theoretical tools he needed for his thesis research on the social, ethical and policy implications of commercial genetic testing in Canada.

"These are complex problems you can't answer with one lens," Williams-Jones explains. "You need multiple lenses to bring out different bits of information and when you put all that information together, you get a much more complex, rich description of the issue."

Specifically, Williams-Jones looked at the case of Myriad Genetics, an American company with patents on the two genes associated with hereditary breast cancer.

"The patents allow Myriad to control access to testing and to tell health care institutions like the B.C. Cancer Agency to stop their in-house testing and send the samples to Myriad for testing - at triple the price," Williams-Jones explains.

As the first in a potentially long line of gene patents, he says, the case offered a practical way to explore larger, more complex social, ethical and legal questions such as access to health care and gene patenting.

The topic also complemented his research goal of producing his thesis as a series of articles that could be quickly published to contribute to the education and debate on genetic testing.

Williams-Jones' next stop is Cambridge University where, with the help of a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council fellowship, he will study the beliefs and values that are driving genomics and biotech researchers to commercialize their research.


Last reviewed 22-Sep-2006

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