healthHealth and Medicine

Theft Of DNA Samples Raises Questions On Ownership Of Genetic Information


Tom Hale

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

Senior Journalist

Certain towns in Sardinia have a very high proportion of centenarians. Could their genetics hold the key? Andrea Sirri/Shutterstock

DNA is – in a very real sense – the essence of you. But is it possible for someone else to own it? And what happens if someone steals it?

Prosecutors and locals have been faced with this very real dilemma after at least 13,000 DNA samples have disappeared from a laboratory on the idyllic Italian island of Sardinia, The Guardian reports. 


The story began last decade when geneticists collected the DNA of local residents from a select few hilly Sardinian towns. The study from 2004 found that people who were born and lived in a dozen towns in Ogliastra province had a significantly higher life expectancy than the rest of the island, so scientists went to see if their genetics held any of the secrets. Their DNA was kept for further research, with the potential for being used to develop new drugs and therapies.

The biobank holding the DNA database was formerly owned by the public company Parco Genetico, which was bought by Sardinian dentist Piergiorgio Lorrai at the beginning of 2016 to “safeguard” the research amid fears it could be exploited by private enterprises. Earlier this year, he told The Guardian he believed “human material doesn’t have a price.” However, Parco Genetico's work was closely tied to a private company called Shardna.

The plot thickens when Shardna was forced to file for bankruptcy and sold its assets to British biotech company Tiziana Life Sciences in July this year. The question of who owned the DNA then become embroiled in legal challenges and ethical questions, with many locals arguing they gave their genetic material for public scientific research and not for profit.

Just this week, it was revealed a police investigation is underway after it was alleged 13,000 DNA samples in test tubes have been stolen from fridges inside Tiziana's laboratory.


“The complaint of the theft of some DNA samples [was discovered] on August 10 but we do not know when the thefts happened,” Prosecutor Biagio Mazzeo said in a statement acquired by world news site ABILK.

He added: “This data is extremely sensitive. There were no cameras or sanctuary systems. In addition, the theft of the test tubes took place without indication of forced entry.”

While these strange happenings may seem like a unique occurrence, it raises many questions about the ownership and consent of genetic information. With the increasing privatization of genetic data, healthcare, and biomedical research, many groups have been asking for more legal protection and awareness of this rising issue. You can learn more about that here.


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