Before Pharma: Transforming Samples into Bio-Objects

Sunday, 10 July 2016
Location: Hörsaal 34 (Main Building)
Distributed Paper
Brigida RISO, CIES-University Institute of Lisbon, Portugal
Biobanks are well-organised repositories of human biological samples associated to personal data for biomedical research. The frenetic sample collection taking place worldwide reflects their importance in the health industry, since they are being used as a source for biomedical research, drug testing and development, and technological innovation.

Biobanks address not only “ill samples” but also the ones from healthy donors. From collection to storage, through sophisticated technology, the sample is transformed and is given an independent and autonomous identity, sharing with the donor the unique and individual genetic information. The sample is submitted to quality tests and criteria, forcing the elimination of impurities and dangers. Even the former clinical waste could be now stored with a noble purpose of developing medical research, as a promise of new pharmaceutical and therapeutic solutions, specifically designed for one’s genetic uniqueness.

Nowadays, the medical gaze is being overcome by a molecular gaze, centred in genetic and cellular processes: looking into individual bodies as samples and information providers. Even if they allow the identification of the original body, they turn the reconstitution of the body and his identity impossible. Corporeal reality is challenged: it is possible to “exist” in different times and different places as the samples harvest could be performed before birth, and it is possible to preserve and use them for years after one’s death.

The political and legal framework, enabling the storage and the samples usage, is required to forbid commercial uses of public samples. Biobanks links to health and pharmaceutical industry were one of the main reasons justifying samples withdrawal by donors.

Conducting ethnography in a Portuguese biobank allowed me to follow the social lives of these samples, from collection to storage, enlightening how these processes of bio-objectification are reshaping health, illness and body conceptualisations.