Manataka™ American Indian Council
Tribes and Nations
Havasupai Indians Ban University DNA Researchers
SUPAI, Ariz. — Seven years ago, the Havasupai Indians, who live amid the turquoise waterfalls and red cliffs miles deep in the Grand Canyon, issued a “banishment order” to keep Arizona State University employees from setting foot on their reservation — an ancient punishment for what they regarded as a genetic-era betrayal.
Members of the tiny, isolated tribe had given DNA samples to university researchers starting in 1990, in the hope that they might provide genetic clues to the tribe’s devastating rate of diabetes. But they learned that their blood samples had been used to study many other things, including mental illness and theories of the tribe’s geographical origins that contradict their traditional stories.
The geneticist responsible for the research has said that she had obtained permission for wider-ranging genetic studies.
Acknowledging a desire to “remedy the wrong that was done,” the university’s Board of Regents on Tuesday agreed to pay $700,000 to 41 of the tribe’s members, return the blood samples and provide other forms of assistance to the impoverished Havasupai — a settlement that legal experts said was significant because it implied that the rights of research subjects can be violated when they are not fully informed about how their DNA might be used.
The case raised the question of whether scientists had taken advantage of a vulnerable population, and it created an image problem for a university eager to cast itself as a center for American Indian studies.
But genetics experts and civil rights advocates say it may also fuel a growing debate over researchers’ responsibility to communicate the range of personal information that can be gleaned from DNA at a time when it is being collected on an ever-greater scale for research and routine medical care.
“I’m not against scientific research,” said Carletta Tilousi, 39, a member of the Havasupai tribal council. “I just want it to be done right. They used our blood for all these studies, people got degrees and grants, and they never asked our permission.”
Researchers and institutions that receive federal funds are required to receive “informed consent” from subjects, ensuring that they understand the risks and benefits before they participate. But such protections were designed primarily for research that carried physical risks, like experimental drug trials or surgery. When it comes to mining DNA, the rules — and the risks — are murkier.
Is it necessary, for instance, to ask someone who has donated DNA for research on heart disease if that DNA can be used for Alzheimer’s or addiction research?
Many scientists say no, arguing that the potential benefit from unencumbered biomedical research trumps the value of individual control.
“Everyone wants to be open and transparent,” said Dr. David Karp, an associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, who has studied informed consent for DNA research. “The question is, how far do you have to go? Do you have to create some massive database of people’s wishes for their DNA specimens?”
The Havasupai settlement appears to be the first payment to individuals who said their DNA was misused, several legal experts said, and came after the university spent $1.7 million fighting lawsuits by tribe members.
Even as the Havasupai prepared to reclaim the 151 remaining blood samples from a university freezer this week, Therese Markow, the geneticist, defended her actions as ethical. Those judging her otherwise, she suggested, failed to understand the fundamental nature of genetic research, where progress often occurs from studies that do not appear to bear directly on a particular disease.
“I was doing good science,” Dr. Markow, now a professor at the University of California, San Diego, said in a telephone interview.
Edmond Tilousi, 56, a cousin of Carletta Tilousi and the tribe’s vice chairman, can climb the eight miles from his village on the floor of the western Grand Canyon to the rim in three hours, when he is in a rush. Horse or helicopter are the other ways out, and Mr. Tilousi is increasingly rare among the tribe’s members in his ability to make the hike. Beginning in the 1960s, an extraordinarily high incidence of Type 2 diabetes led to amputations, even among the younger members, and forced many to leave the canyon for dialysis.