Biobanking ethics are important and one of the most debated issues in public health and bioethics. Biorepositories carry the potential to advance disease research in unprecedented ways. There are however concerns about donor privacy and not all biorepositories make sure that they follow ethical standards. People’s DNA and tissue sample has been used without respect for their rights. Regardless of peoples differing views and perspectives, one thing can be agreed upon among most experts, that biobanks are revolutionary. Biobanking ethics include issues such as, but not limited to:
Controversies and key challenges faced in biobanking ethics
Issues of informed consent
Withdrawal from participants
Ethics of re-contact
Ownership, property and commercialization problems
Issues in Brief
1) Informed Consent
Informed consent is crucial in ensuring that ethical standards are followed in both research and therapy. It ensures that the participant understands “the nature, duration, and purpose of the experiment; the method and means it is to be conducted; all inconveniences and hazards reasonable is to be expected; and the effects upon the individual’s health may be due to the participation in the experiment." (Excerpt from Springer Article) One of the major issues of informed consent in biobanking is that it only applies to the donor and not those who are connected to the donor. Next, since biospecimens can be used in future studies, participants cannot be “informed” at the time their tissue is obtained as the nature of future researches are not yet known.
2) Broad Consent
There are some experts who believe that broad consent can be a potential solution to the issues of informed consent in biobanking. However, there are some who disagree as it offers minimal protection and minimal guarantees. Broad consent is the permission given by the donor for the biobank, so the biorepository can do what they see fit with the genetic material. While some individuals argue that broad consent is a means of maximizing autonomy, some see it as the opposite where it is an abuse for autonomy. Ethicists worry that broad consent causes donors to relinquish their rights regarding how their genetic material is used in the future.
One of the main features of genetic information is that it can be used to identify the donor and those related to them. While ethicists argue that identification can be discouraged through various methods of anonymization, there is always the possibility that identification is possible. The risk of identification increases as databases grow.
4) Property and Profit
There is also the issue that participants or donors do not own their tissue samples. This is based on the traditional understanding that body parts are res nullius which means that they do not belong to anyone once detached. Ethicists have argued that there are valid reasons for following the “no property” rule for biospecimens. Allowing property would restrain studies and research to the point where it would become untenable. Another issue is that commercial companies may look to make very large profits from donated samples.
5) Feedback to Participants
Another ethical issue is whether or not to tell participants regarding incidental findings from their donated tissue samples. Incidental findings can be defined as “observations of potential clinical significance that have been discovered unexpectedly in a healthy subject unrelated to the purpose and variables of the study.”(Excerpt from Springer Article)
6) Participation, Representation, Maintenance of Trust
Biorepositories are also worried about the mass withdrawal of participants as it will ultimately result in the loss of set-up costs. The maintaining of trust between the public and biobanks are crucial to prevent participant withdrawal and biobank failure. Currently, there is still no one way that is viewed as the best method of practice in this area.
Re-contact is becoming an increasingly crucial issue as there is very little industry conformity on how re-contact should be managed. There needs to be a balance between what donors are informed and what's included without overburdening them. Biorepositories and research teams should view the ability to re-contact as a limited resource. Currently, there is no standard that biobanks can look to adopt for this issue.
The problems and challenges in biobanking ethics mean that there is a need for alternative models to address the issues. Biobanking presents important and significant ethical challenges. It is important for those involved to be aware of the advancements and developments in the debates surrounding these issues. By raising awareness of these issues, public interest of will increase and as a result biobanking can continue to change the medical research landscape.
Widdows H, Cordell S. The ethics of biobanking: key issues and controversies. Health Care Anal. 2011; 19:207-219.