It’s a well-known fact that watching certain films and TV shows with a scientist is no fun at all – in fact, it’s almost as bad as trying to watch ER with three medical student flatmates, as I did every week from 1995-1998. Rather than trying to competitively guess each diagnosis (and argue about it loudly enough to drown out the dialogue), however, the scientist’s problem is usually a lack of ability to prioritize narrative flow and dramatic tension over scientific accuracy, and to switch off other scientific thought processes.
CBC’s Dragons’ Den, in which entrepreneurs pitch ideas to potential investors, is usually (but not always) a life-sciences free, and therefore a safe, option. However, an old episode I watched for the first time on Wednesday proved to be an exception to the rule, and made me put on my “and another thing!” ranty-pants for at least 15 minutes. Poor Mr E Man…
The pitch in question is 7:33 long and can be found here (there’s no embed code, unfortunately). The company making the pitch extracts and stores DNA from humans and pets, either as a future medical and ancestry testing resource or to be embedded into jewellery or other mementos.
Moving in order of increasing seriousness of the problem, rather than chronologically, my first issue with the pitch is that, I’m sorry, storing DNA in a tube is NOT proprietary. (See section of video from 4:40 – 5:12). The design of a tube can obviously be proprietary, but I just can’t see any possible way in which storing DNA in said tube can be patented. The building I work in contains dozens of fridges and freezers, all crammed to the gills with thousands of tubes of DNA – big tubes, little tubes, colourless tubes, blue tubes, pink tubes, you name it. The same is true for every single lab I’ve ever set foot in. I extracted DNA and put it in a tube for storage during an undergraduate lab class. Hell, the elementary school students who come in every so often to tour our lab, learn about genomics, and extract DNA from kiwi fruit put that DNA in tubes, too. Sheesh!
So far, so ridiculous. However, the part that really made me mad is described from 2:38 – 3:50. This part of the business involves getting funeral home staff to swab cheek cells from every deceased person they prepare for cremation, and offer DNA extraction, storage, and/or insertion into jewellery to the bereaved – for a fee, of course. The fact that cremation destroys the genetic history and medical information [emphasis added] stored in the body’s DNA is apparently used as a persuasion tool when trying to make these sales.
This latter point raises a huge red flag for me – and not just because of the thought of bereaved people being marketed to in this way*. My job has recently involved a lot of reading and synthesis of the latest research and guidelines relating to the ethics of genome sequencing, and this part of the pitch set my “YOU SHOULD NOT BE ABLE TO DO THIS WITHOUT THE CONSENT OF THE DECEASED” warning lights ablaze. Who knows what the dead person’s opinions on this matter were?! You can’t just go taking their DNA and testing it for medically relevant information that could affect the entire family! Hell, I’m a geneticist by training who’s spent the last six years in the genomics field, and I’m still highly conflicted about direct-to-consumer genetic testing myself! GAAAAAH!
I’ve talked about this clip with several colleagues over the last few days, one of whom is a real expert in the ethics and consent aspect of genome sequencing, and they all agree with me, so this is not just my opinion.
The scientists did not get their deal, although largely because the company is too young and doesn’t have enough cash flow yet – the ethical aspect wasn’t mentioned at all. In fact, they were invited to come back in a year to pitch again when the company has matured a little. I’ll be watching, with my ranty-pants on standby – stay tuned!
*although I do understand that this happens a lot, with everything from the funeral home to the coffin or urn to the headstone to the flowers etc etc etc. Doesn’t mean I have to like it though.