The legal status of human biological material used for research

Authors: Donrich W Thaldar & Bonginkosi Shozi

ISSN: 1996-2177
Affiliations: Associate Professor, School of Law, University of KwaZulu-Natal; Postdoctoral Scholar, University of California San Diego; Honorary Research Fellow, University of KwaZulu-Natal
Source: South African Law Journal, Volume 138 Issue 4, p. 881-907


Whether human biological material (‘HBM’) in the research context is susceptible of ownership is contested, yet under-investigated. This situation leads to legal uncertainty for local scientists and their international collaborators. This article presents a comprehensive analysis of the topic — investigating both common law and statutory law — and concludes that HBM in the research context is indeed susceptible of ownership. First, since the common law is dynamic, it should recognise the reality that HBM has become useful in the research context and should therefore treat HBM in this context as susceptible of being owned. This aligns with the general trend in comparative foreign case law. Secondly, since relevant statutes consistently use the legal-technical term ‘donation’ to denote a situation where HBM is provided by a research participant to a research institution for the purposes of research, the transfer of ownership in the donated HBM from the research participant to the research institution is a statutory requirement. This necessarily implies that HBM in the research context is indeed susceptible of ownership and, moreover, that HBM in the research context is owned by research institutions and not research participants.