Property Rights and the Human Body

11808967A Canadian court made headlines this month when it decided, as a preliminary matter, that human tissue removed from the body for diagnostic medical tests is “personal property” that belongs to the hospital where the procedure was performed. The case was a medical negligence action brought against two doctors by the estate of Snezana Piljak, a woman who was diagnosed in 2009 with colorectal cancer and died in 2011. At issue in the case is whether the doctors were negligent in failing to diagnose the cancer in 2008 when a colonoscopy was performed on Ms. Piljak. The doctors had petitioned the Canadian court for access to liver tissue biopsied from Ms. Piljak in 2009 at Toronto’s Stonybrook Hospital. The court had to address the matter of tissue ownership before it could consider whether the defendant-doctors had a right to access the liver tissue in order to investigate whether Ms. Piljak had hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (HNPCC or Lynch Syndrome). If the HNPCC were indicated by an examination of the tissue, the defendant-doctors would use that fact to mount a defense against the accusations of negligence. The court ruled that the tissue was personal property of the hospital (though it ultimately denied the defendant-doctors’ request to examine it for technical reasons). The decision that human tissue is “personal property” has important legal ramifications that might affect the biotech industry and genetic research community outside of Canada. The question of ownership of biospecimens has often been tangled up with the status of the biospecimens as personal property, though they are distinct questions.
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