On 21 August, the College of Law hosted a one-day conference on the legal aspects relating to the application of biotechnology. This conference was organised by the College of Law flagship on Biotechnology and Medical law, in collaboration with the Institute for Cellular and Molecular Medicine from the University of Pretoria. Speakers at this event include Prof Michael Pepper from the Institute for Cellular and Molecular Biology; Mr Roger Chennells, legal advisor to the San people of Southern Africa; Prof Jeanine Vellema, chief specialist of the Gauteng (South) Forensic Pathology Service and head of the department of Forensic Medicine and Pathology at Wits university; Dr Norma Tsotsi, director of Undergraduate Studies of the Steve Biko Centre for Bioethics; Dr David Kirchoffer from the Australian Catholic University; and Prof A Nienaber from the faculty of law, University of Pretoria. Unisa speakers at this event were Prof Melodie Slabbert and Ms Maureen Mswela from the School of Law.
The purpose of this conference was to bring professionals from various disciplines together, including amongst others, lawyers, medical specialists, forensic specialists and ethicists. Topics addressed were challenges to the legal regulation of human tissue in various context, including the context of forensic pathology; benefit-sharing and community engagement with indigenous communities whose DNA are sampled in genetic and genomic research; legal issues relating to stem cell research; ethical and social issues relating to the use of human tissue; and issues relating to dignity and consent in biobanking. Other topics include those of consent and authorisation to the export and use of human biological material in Africa; legal issues relating to genomic research, and finally, the medico-legal issues relating to Albinism.
“The presentation acknowledged that the legal aspects relating to Albinism have been understudied and overlooked in South Africa. The presentation attempted to remedy, such a failure within a legal framework, as it soughtto unravel, a wide range of medico-legal issues surrounding albinism. The presentation was framed around how people living with Albinism are stigmatised and discriminated against as a result of the fundamental and recurring misunderstandings of the condition. It was presented that the unending etiological portrayal of albinism continues to be profoundly influenced among other things by cultural beliefs rather than by an understanding of the underlying genetic disorder,” said MS Maureen Mswela.
The relevance of the conference is underscored by the national significance of the role of biotechnology generally. Legal issues relating to this biotechnology are novel and many challenges exist. The conference has aimed to make a contribution to address the existing legal vacuum in some areas touched by biotechnology.