The Compound Eye

Policy Focus

DNA Technology (Use and Application) Regulation Bill, 2018:

The first edition of Compound Eye discussed the DNA Technology Bill 2018. It subsequently lapsed after the previous Lok Sabha dissolved before the national elections. It was subsequently re-introduced in the current Lok Sabha and has now been sent to a Parliamentary Committee on Science and Technology for further scrutiny. Comments due by 18.11.2019 via email:

What does the Bill do?

  • The Bill constitutes a DNA Regulatory Board which will formulate detailed guidelines.
  • The Bill mandates DNA laboratories to be registered and accredited.
  • The Bill creates DNA databanks which will hold DNA sequences in separate indices – missing persons, suspects, crime scene and offenders – for identifying unidentified deceased remains or placing a criminal at a crime scene.

What does the Bill not do?

  • The Bill does not make it clear if its provisions are applicable to laboratories who use DNA sequencing for non-identification purposes (example; academic labs)
  • The Bill does not clearly distinguish between forensic use of DNA for criminal and use for civil disputes.
  • The Bill does not address capacity issues – training required to implement the provisions, accreditation standards, interpretation of DNA data, etc. It is assumed that the Regulatory Board will formulate these rules.
  • The Bill does not amend the Evidence Act, 1872 or the Code of Criminal Procedure which govern the admissibility of DNA evidence in court. 
  • The Bill does not address the context in which DNA evidence can be used or its inherent limitations. It is currently being portrayed as a silver bullet to fast-track cases.
  • The Bill has a protracted purging mechanism instead of automatic data purging for acquitted suspects. There is no verification mechanism to confirm the purge.

Detailed analysis and views on the Bill: PRS Bill Summary

If you prefer to listen:

It's Controversial

The Whistleblowers Ousted 

Nope, this story is not about US and Ukraine. It is about UK and a bunch of African countries. Whole genome sequencing costs about $800-$1200 per person. Instead companies prefer to create gene chips based on a small population sample, and then use the gene chips to analyse bigger populations. Gene chips can bring down the cost of sequencing to $100 per person. UK-based Wellcome Sanger Institute had partnered with institutions in various African countries to create this primary data set. Through its partners, Sanger obtained genomic data for more than 2500 people. 

In a $2.2 million deal inked in 2017, Thermo Fisher Scientific made 75,000 gene chips, or microarrays, for Sanger based on this data set. Following this whistleblowers privately accused Sanger of commercializing the gene chip without proper legal agreements with partner institutions or the consent of the African people who donated their DNA. The institute denies any commercialisation and even Thermo Fisher Scientific has announced that it has not publicly sold any of these chips. Stellenbosch University in South Africa has demanded that Sanger return samples collected through them. 

There are two main points of contention: 

1. According to the deal with Thermo, Sanger was to receive a cashback on their $2.2 million deal, which was supposed to be distributed between its partners. However later representatives of Sanger felt that Sanger also deserves to keep a share of the cashback. 

2. The MTAs with most African partners were signed on the basis of no commercialisation. According to some policy experts, the transfer of knowledge to thermo and subsequent creation and purchase of chips itself amounts to commercialisation. 

The four whistleblowers who brought these issues to light have since left or been fired from Sanger. 

The Compound Take:

Genetic research is now being pushed in India as well with the recently celebrated IndiGenome project. Questions of IP and commercial agreements are likely to rise in India as well. This fallout between Sanger and its partners and the contentious issues it raises need to be addressed by governmental policies in India. Personalised medicine based on genetic studies is clearly going to be the gold standard for future medicine (at least for certain type of diseases) and people who donate their DNA for creating this knowledge need to be compensated for their contributions. 

Science in India

India not to join Plan S: 

The Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India, K Vijayraghavan announced at an event in Bangalore that contrary to previous plans, India will not be joining the European coalition-led Plan S.

India’s joining would have meant that research funded through Government of India grants – a major chunk of India’s research output – would be publicly available immediately upon publication. It was announced earlier that funding agencies- not authors or institutions- would cover the costs for publication. (More information on Plan S here).

While the biggest challenge would remain implementation of the scheme and timely release of funding so that publications are not held hostage, we also felt the policy created important opportunities: 

  • Multiple Indian institutions and universities who currently cannot afford to pay high prices gain access to latest research. Colleges and institutions could have responded by effectively utilizing this access by teaching students to read and critique papers in preparation of a research career.
  • Also, this policy puts into relief the institutional policies of recruiting personnel in academic institutions on basis of impact factors of the journals in which the author has published. Perhaps publishing in open access journals should also be made mandatory for recruitment ensuring that India-trained personnel are on a level playing field with their US counterparts.
  • Finally, the need to publish in open-access policy creates an opportunity for India-based journals with effective peer review processes to rise and promote research from India and other countries.

Click here to listen to Takshashila Institution’s conversation on whether publicly funded research should be free.

However, now Plan S has been criticised as being unfair to industrial nations and an alternate national strategy is being considered. This alternate strategy is said to involve negotiating with publishers – both OA and subscription – at a national rather than institutional level, for fair-pricing and access to all Indians. 

Meanwhile, here is some weird and/or wonderful news:

The pig that is using tools: In a first, pigs have been observed using tools. As an ecologist watched the Visayan warty pigs— one picked up a piece of bark in its mouth and started digging with it, pushing the soil around. Now the dataset is very small, but ain't that cool?  

The human with an in-house brewery: Yup, this man's gut makes alcohol. His gut began producing beer after it became colonised by high levels of brewer’s yeast. Wonder how many people would believe that this is the correct gut microbiome to have? 

The spiders that fox nature: Sleeping beauty and spiderwebs both waited ages for prince charming. Sleeping beauty was under a witch's spell, but why did the spiderwebs not decompose? A study suggests that spider webs sequester nitrogen away from attacking microbes and stalls their growth. Wonder if thats how witch spells also work?? 

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Shambhavi Naik Research Fellow
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