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BMC Med Ethics. 2014 Aug 7;15:60. doi: 10.1186/1472-6939-15-60.

A perpetual source of DNA or something really different: ethical issues in the creation of cell lines for African genomics research.

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  • 1Department of Medicine, University of Cape Town, Office J52-16, UCT Centre for Clinical Research, Old Main Building, Groote Schuur Hospital, Observatory, 7925 Cape Town, South Africa.



The rise of genomic studies in Africa - not least due to projects funded under H3Africa - is associated with the development of a small number of biorepositories across Africa. For the ultimate success of these biorepositories, the creation of cell lines including those from selected H3Africa samples would be beneficial. In this paper, we map ethical challenges in the creation of cell lines.


The first challenge we identified relates to the moral status of cells living in culture. There is no doubt that cells in culture are alive, and the question is how this characteristic is relevant to ethical decision-making. The second challenge relates to the fact that cells in culture are a source of cell products and mitochondrial DNA. In combination with other technologies, cells in culture could also be used to grow human tissue. Whilst on the one hand, this feature increases the potential utility of the sample and promotes science, on the other it also enables further scientific work that may not have been specifically consented to or approved. The third challenge relates to ownership over samples, particularly in cases where cell lines are created by a biobank, and in a different country than where samples were collected. Relevant questions here concern the export of samples, approval of secondary use and the acceptability of commercialisation. A fourth challenge relates to perceptions of blood and bodily integrity, which may be particularly relevant for African research participants from certain cultures or backgrounds. Finally, we discuss challenges around informed consent and ethical review.


In this paper, we sought to map the myriad of ethical challenges that need to be considered prior to making cell line creation a reality in the H3Africa project. Considering the relative novelty of this practice in Africa, such challenges will need to be considered, discussed and potentially be resolved before cell line creation in Africa becomes financially feasible and sustainable. We suggest that discussions need to be undertaken between stakeholders internationally, considering the international character of the H3Africa project. We also map out avenues for empirical research.

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