UK’s Sanger Institute suspected of unethical DNA handling

Dealings with Sanger (and I have collaborated for nearly ten years) have recently turned very disappointing, hurtful and may even say humiliating and disrespectful.

Scientist from Lebanese American University

DNA data is not exactly a “new gold” – but biomedical companies are willing to pay more and more for the information. As private companies, such as 23andMe, earn hundreds of millions in hard currency, research institutes are becoming increasingly interested in similar deals. Sometimes – with ethical breaches.

Cambridge-based Wellcome Sanger Institute cooperated with African Universities in a project, which collected genomic data from indigenous tribes. The samples were gathered with consent for research-purpose, evolutionary studies. But in the beginning of 2019, some of the African institutes began to worry about intentions of their UK partner – contacting it directly and starting investigations into the use of DNA.

According to The Times, Sanger Institute intended to build commercial medical tool.

In response, at least three universities expressed concerns:

  • Stellenbosch University, Western Cape
  • Lebanese American University, Beirut
  • University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban

The institute was also ordered to return African DNA samples.

Moreover, scientists inside Sanger Institute raised questions – and were dismissed:

Myself, and another whistleblower were dismissed after we raised concerns about this to senior management at Sanger Institute and Wellcome Trust. Eight more people were made redundant.

Deepti Gurdasani

Laid off scientists include the lead of the Africa programme in the institute.

The project targeted 12 diverse African populations in Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda, Namibia, and South Africa, recruiting almost 5,000 individuals. Official website removed the announcement of the project:

However, its content is available at Web Archive. It is unclear why the institute would hide this press release, as it’s still present at Thermo Fisher’s website.

Sanger Institue denied allegations described in The Times, saying that commercialization was never pursued proposal.


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