Author Michael Crichton has a disturbing opinion piece in today’s Wall Street Journal (Body Snatchers, 2006) in which he describes a lawsuit over the disposition of prostate tissue samples at Washington University. According to Mr. Crichton,
When [prostate-cancer surgeon] Dr. [William] Catalona left Washington University for Northwestern, he wanted to take… tissues with him. Six thousand patients notified the university that they wished their tissues to go with him. Ignoring the requests of patients, Washington University claimed the tissue collection as its own, and sued Dr. Catalona. In March of this year the district court ruled the collection belonged to the university. Judge Stephen Limbaugh found that the patients had given their tissues to WU as a gift, and therefore the university owned the tissues outright.
Crichton argues that the judge overstepped his bounds and took away patients rights. The ultimate harm will come from patients’ loss of confidence in university research centers.
We only have Crichton’s side of the story here and I don’t find it terribly credible. What does he mean for example that “six thousand patients notified the university that they wished their tissues to go with him?” And why should a researcher be surprised that the university would assert its rights to tissues –or anything else– that was donated to the university? Why, in general, should we trust researchers more (or less) than universities?
I do agree with his last piece of advice (except the lawyer part),
In short, caveat patiens, keep copies of everything you sign, bring a lawyer to every medical appointment, and always, always watch your back