Correction to This Article
The name of Yang Huanming, the director of sequencing work for the Chinese Human Genome Project, was omitted from the Dec. 20 installment of "The Body Hunters" series on Harvard University's genetic research in Anhui province. Yang said, "I hope that Harvard and the School of Public Health will understand that the [recruiting] methods they used in China are unacceptable to the Chinese."

An Isolated Region's Genetic Mother Lode

By John Pomfret; Deborah Nelson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 20, 2000

TOUTUO, China -- Fourth of six articles

They came from distant farming villages and scattered rural shacks, trudging miles by foot across precipitous terrain and muddy green tea fields. Women left the open ditches where they washed the family clothes, dragging children along with them. The men joined in. Fifteen hundred people answered the call.

Among them was Wang Guangpu, 26, who makes $36 a month cutting hair in a hut made out of reeds in the Toutuo town center, a 100-meter strip of crumbling structures on a rutted dirt road.

"We were told there would be free medical care," he said. "So of course everybody came out."

There was a catch, however: Residents had to give blood. Few in this impoverished community could afford a doctor otherwise, because economic reforms had gutted China's free health care system. So, one by one, they extended their arms.

This was no ordinary blood drive. It was genetic research, a pamphlet explained to participants. But many couldn't read, and few could have guessed at the tangle of scientific and business dreams that lay behind the project.

DNA from this region was coveted in the West. Researchers at Harvard University and its corporate sponsor, Millennium Pharmaceuticals, Inc., of Cambridge, Mass., believed the isolated population here and elsewhere in the mountainous Anhui province held a treasure of unpolluted genetic material that could yield medical breakthroughs and perhaps millions in biotech profits.

Because it was unusually homogenous and made medical research easier, the DNA in the local population's blood "was more valuable than gold," the lead Harvard researcher reportedly told colleagues. Ounce for ounce, that would prove a sound estimate.

Harvard ultimately reaped millions of dollars in federal grants and private investment for the university and the project's lead researcher because of its access to Anhui DNA. And Millennium was able to raise tens of millions of dollars from corporate investors.

Along the way, Harvard allied itself with researchers in China who sometimes used the coercive levers of the country's government to help round up volunteers. They recruited women for one reproductive genetics study through the controversial Chinese bureaucracy charged with limiting births. To encourage blood donations, they sometimes mobilized local cadres for "thought work."

Some Chinese who took part complain the bargain proved one-sided. In Toutuo and elsewhere in Anhui, people such as Wang Guangpu say promised medical treatment never materialized.

The story of Harvard's blood harvest in China highlights a question increasingly asked by medical ethicists as U.S. academic and corporate researchers turn to poor countries to find large pools of willing human subjects: Are some populations too vulnerable for all but the most essential medical research?

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