The ethical use of existing samples for genome research

Genet Med. 2009 Oct;11(10):712-5. doi: 10.1097/GIM.0b013e3181b2e168.


Modern biobanking efforts consist of prospective collections of tissues linked to clinical data for patients who have given informed consent for the research use of their specimens and data, including their DNA. In such efforts, patient autonomy and privacy are well respected because of the prospective nature of the informed consent process. However, one of the richest sources of tissue for research continues to be the millions of archived samples collected by pathology departments during normal clinical care or for research purposes without specific consent for future research or genetic analysis. Because specific consent was not obtained a priori, issues related to individual privacy and autonomy are much more complicated. A framework for accessing these existing samples and related clinical data for research is presented. Archival tissues may be accessed only when there is a reasonable likelihood of generating beneficial and scientifically valid information. To minimize risks, databases containing information related to the tissue and to clinical data should be coded, no personally identifying phenotypic information should be included, and access should be restricted to bona fide researchers for legitimate research purposes. These precautions, if implemented appropriately, should ensure that the research use of archival tissue and data are no more than minimal risk. A waiver of the requirement for informed consent would then be justified if reconsent is shown to be impracticable. A waiver of consent should not be granted, however, if there is a significant risk to privacy, if the proposed research use is inconsistent with the original consent (where there is one), or if the potential harm from a privacy breach is considerable.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Algorithms
  • Biological Specimen Banks / ethics
  • Biological Specimen Banks / statistics & numerical data
  • Ethics, Medical
  • Genomics / ethics*
  • Humans
  • Informed Consent
  • Models, Biological
  • Personal Autonomy
  • Privacy
  • Specimen Handling / ethics*