The Wellcome Sanger Institute in the UK had planned to commercialize a genetics array based on African DNA samples, whistleblowers allege, which would have violated the terms of agreements for using the materials, The Times reports. Two universities in Africa have condemned any commercial endeavors using the samples, some of which came from indigenous tribes.
“This conduct of the Wellcome Sanger Institute raises serious legal and ethical consequences,” Stellenbosch University in South Africa wrote to Sanger Director Mike Stratton in March, according to The Times.
Whistleblower complaints and documents reviewed by the news outlet indicate that Sanger had discussed a deal with Thermo Fisher to sell an array for investigating the genetic influence behind diseases in Africa and had 75,000 produced. Yet, according to The Times, the DNA samples used in the design of the arrays were obtained with the promise that they would be studied for insights into human evolution and not for the development of products or for medical research. Ultimately, the arrays were never sold, and Sanger denies any wrongdoing.
“Relationships with some African partners in a particular project were disrupted. The cause of concern was a potential commercialisation proposal from an individual working at the institute,” a Sanger spokesperson tells The Times. “The institute did not pursue this proposal.”
On Twitter, geneticist Deepti Gurdasani writes that she is one of the whistleblowers and claims that she lost her job after she filed her complaint. “It’s great to see the silence around this being broken. Myself, and another whistleblower were dismissed after we raised concerns about this to senior management at @sangerinstitute and @JeremyFarrar at @wellcometrust. Eight more people were made redundant.”
Sanger has been dealing with accusations of poor management, harassment, and the expected loss of a number of top faculty members. While Stratton has admitted that there was mismanagement at the institute, an independent investigation cleared him of any wrongdoing.
Kerry Grens is a senior editor and the news director of The Scientist. Email her at email@example.com.