Studying the bacteria in our bodies: The ethical ramifications

by jeeg 19. June 2012 00:49

Personally, I would have been perfectly happy to have been one of the volunteers for the Human Microbiome Project, in which researchers took a detailed census of all the bacteria, fungi and other microscopic life within us.

Nor would I care if the contents of my innards were published for all to see (though I might be perturbed if my friends came to know I was one of the one-third of subjects carrying around Staphylococcus aureus in my nose or on my skin, in case they started treating me like Typhoid Mary. But the samples were anonymous. Nobody will ever know.)

More disconcerting would be having my DNA displayed for all to see. The scientists of the microbiome project were very mindful of this issue, explained Barbara Methe of the J. Craig Venter Institute, one of the scientists who worked on the project. They knew that they would pick up plenty of human cells as they swabbed the inside of someone's cheek, say, while collecting specimens for analysis. They used techniques to remove all human DNA sequences from the databases they analyzed. The project was vetted by institutional review boards, as is standard with biomedical research, and volunteers had the project carefully explained to them before agreeing.

But there are other ethical ramifications that have to do with the microbes themselves, not human DNA. Dr. Amy McGuire, of the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine, was granted federal funds by the NIH to study these implications, along with some of her Baylor colleagues.

A report of the research is due out in July, according to a Baylor press release. (Here, in the meantime, is a 2008 article McGuire coauthored on the issues.) 

“Who owns the microbes and what legal and social implications does the answer to that question have?” McGuire said in the release. “How should the products of microbiome research be regulated and what type of evidence should be required to substantiate health-related claims for probiotic foods, like yogurt?”

Anyone who'd like to make “Rosivia” yogurt out of my gut contents will have to make me an offer.

Rosie Mestel, LA Times

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