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DNA From the Dead: DNA Banking is Legal, but is it Ethical? Part I

The field of genomics is exploding.Every day, the mysteries of our genome are revealed and we learn more and more about the power of DNA.Soon, with affordable whole-genome sequencing, we will be able to analyze our own personal genome for clues about our ancestry, our propensity for disease, and insight into our body and our personality.In fact, this is already well underway.

Undoubtedly, each of us will be faced with a decision in our lifetime – do we want to learn the secrets of our genome, or do we want to live without that knowledge, as all of our ancestors have done for millions of years.This decision is a personal one, and at this point I don’t think there’s any right or wrong answer.

But what about those who are unable to make that decision?For example, an infant is unable to give consent for genetic testing, but many states in the USroutinely test newborns for genetic disorders.Today and tomorrow we will be examining another group of individuals who are not able to consent to genetic testing – the recently deceased.

DNA Banking

There are number of companies in the US and throughout the world that offer DNA retrieval from recently deceased individuals.Kauber-Miller Funeral Home in Pataskala, Ohio has been using DNA Connections to offer storage service to bereaved families.In a 2004 interview, Mr. Miller stated that the service has been popular:

“About 30 percent of the families take advantage of it,” he said. “It seems to be a generational thing, with younger people more in favor of it.”

In 2004, the cost was $295 before embalming and $459 after embalming.Before embalming, a blood sample is dried on specially coated cards and stored inside a vault at DNA Connections’ headquarters.After embalming, a skin sample must be taken to retrieve the DNA.

Perhaps surprisingly, the ability to store a deceased person’s DNA has been around for more than ten years.In 1998, an article in the Huntington’s Disease Lighthouse newsletter described a DNA storage service from Cincinnati-based DNA Analysis, Inc.For $350, the company would take hair, blood, and cheek swab samples for long-term storage.The family would also receive a “genetic fingerprint”, although it is unclear exactly what that phrase means.

The ability to store DNA from both the living and the recently deceased is increasing every day.The City of San Bruno in Californiarecently posted online instructions for banking the DNA of children in your own freezer.Although the instructions were provided to assist in finding or identifying lost relatives, it could be used for anyone.Even retailers have entered the market, offering a home DNA storage kit for only $29.99.

In 2006, the New England Historic Genealogical Society published an article by Edwin M. Knights, M.D. entitled “DNA Banking for Medical Information.”In the article, Dr. Knights makes the following comment:

“For an increasing number of disorders there is urgent need to store DNA from elderly members of the family or affected persons whose life expectancy is reduced. We would go much further, as we feel strongly that DNA information is becoming so important that DNA should be banked from every elderly adult who has had children. This is particularly true because so many are now choosing cremation rather than traditional methods of burial, in which case DNA evidence is lost forever. It is becoming increasingly important for descendants to know what DNA they have inherited in order to modify or prevent subsequent serious medical conditions in future generations. Of course DNA also provides a priceless resource for genealogical pedigree studies. This objective can be achieved easily if we enlist the cooperation of funeral directors.”

DNA Storage in Other Countries:

Storage of a deceased person’s DNA is also being offered in the UK.According to Avi Lasarow, founder and director of DNA Bioscience Today, “in the UK the cremation rate is 73%, and the public need to be aware that there is a real need to store this vital piece of medical information.”

Interestingly, Mr. Lasarow also suggested that Funeral Homes might be liable for NOT offering DNA storage.”Given the importance of DNA preservation and knowing that upon cremation and most likely embalming that there will be no possibility of getting samples, we are beginning to wonder if there is an implied responsibility among funeral directors to make families aware of this service,” Lasarow said.

So it appears that DNA storage is being offered by funeral directors and retailers around the world.But it raises a few important questions – how necessary or useful is a dead person’s DNA, and is the retrieval of DNA from someone who has not given consent ethical?We’ll look into this tomorrow.

Companies that Offer DNA Retrieval and/or Banking:

1.DNA Safe Storage

2.DNA Connections

3.DNA Analysis

4.Genetic Identity

5.GeneSaver

6.PRO-DNA

7.DNA Diagnostics Center

8.DNA Products

9.Heritage DNA

10.DNA Genetic Connections

11.LegacyBiogenetics

12.Beta Genetics

13.Affiliated Genetics

14.GeneTree

15.GeneLink

16.DNA Bioscience

For More Information:

Blaine Bettinger

Intellectual property attorney, genealogist, and author of The Genetic Genealogist since 2007

20 Comments

  1. Great article Blaine. I suspect that one day in the not too distant future attorneys will have a “standard” DNA release form/permission form that will be included with estate planning arrangements (along with a will, a living will, instructions for organ donation, etc.). When will this happen? Right after the first law suit where someone wins a big settlement because their loved one cremated and they were/were not informed that DNA banking was an option.

  2. Also remember, scientifically speaking, today’s technology allows preservation of DNA integrity for 12-15 years only !!! After that, DNA will be, or will start to be degraded and worthless. It’s hard to find serious publications mentioning more than this 12-15 years limitation.

    Don’t expect too that your preserved DNA with today’s technology could be “upgraded” with upcoming technologies for preservation. It should be preserved right now with a longer term preservation technology.

    Air, water, humidity and many other factors start the degradation process as soon as your DNA is “preserved” by today’s market offerings.

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  4. In my Composition 2 class at University of South Florida, I am researching the ethics of DNA banking and its effects on the world and the society. I talked about the benefits of DNA Banking in the forensics department. They can easily find a criminal faster and more conveniently using DNA banking to find any traces of DNA the criminal might have left and looking for its match in a DNA bank. Another use of DNA banking- or DNA profiling- is to find a missing person or reunites a family that was split apart. It is a good way of tracing DNA of blood relatives in order to make family connections, which usually results in a family coming together. Also, we can use this new technology to identify bodies that were left from a disaster such as an explosion or a fire. They are usually so damaged you cannot identify them. With DNA banking you can now use their hair of skin to find out who they are. All of these advantages to DNA banking are logically and ethically correct and make the world a better place. Even if we find a disadvantage every now and then such as DNA banking being a violation of privacy or finding a person who does not want to be found, these disadvantages are only small reasons in an large field of possibilities. They can be adjusted to fit what the people find ethical and that would eventually benefit everyone and make the world a better place.

  5. my son was born in 1967,at that time i was in a coma and the father was never put on to birth certificate and dna was never established.as time went by the father and i lost contact w/each other and 38 years ago the father committed suicide. after this happened i ask the grandfather of my son on his dads side to help me establish that his son was the father and he would not cooperate. i told my son about his father when he became of age,he was and still is disturbed about this. all my son and i want is proof of dna ( that he is the father) stephen delmas mayle. his remaining family knows he is the father and i do too! my son has 2 stepbrothers that belong to his dad.HELP US IF YOU CAN PLEASE

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