by Jeremy So, UMN Law Student, MJLSTManaging Editor
On October 28, Australian researchers published new information about the genetic basis for endometriosis, a condition where the cells lining the uterus flourish in other areas of the body. The researchers, instead of recruiting their own research subjects, analyzed samples stored in biobanks in Australia, Japan, and Europe. Because of their approach, the researchers were able to identify common markers that appeared across the ethnically-diverse study population. The Australian team's findings highlight the increasing importance of biobanks--repositories for biological research samples--which have become a valuable resource in the fields of genomics and personalized medicine
The increasing importance of biobanks was recently highlighted in a symposia sponsored by MJLST. In the accompanying Spring 2012 issue, researchers and lawyers discussed the one of the primary problem facing researchers who use biobanks: whether to return research results and incidental findings to research participants.
While the Australian researchers have decided to track down the original participants in order to share their findings, other researchers have hesitated to use the same approach. Karen J. Maschke highlighted several such reasons in her recent article "Returning Genetic Research Results: Considerations for Existing No-Return and Future Biobanks." In the article, Maschke focuses on the approaches of American biobanks researchers, who generally do not share their results with individuals whose DNA was analyzed.
For American researchers, Maschke notes that samples stored for biobank research are regularly deidentified, making it difficult to impossible to contact the original donor. Such a system exists in part because of concerns over whether consent would be granted for samples to be used in certain types of research. Combined with conflicting interpretations of government regulations and other difficulties in actually returning sample results, researchers have hesitated to adopt a disclosure-based system for research results.
Although some may remain hesitant, cooperation between researchers and biobank participants has not necessarily led to negative outcomes.
The importance of resolving this conflict is highlighted by the increasing prevalence and importance of biobanks to scientific research. Several countries are working on expanding their biobank networks. Now, before competing standards come to dominate the field, a uniform system for the return of results should be determined and implemented.