Genomics has the potential to revolutionise human health and agriculture, but all involved must make sure a 'genomics divide' doesn't occur.
Genomics — the study of the properties of organisms in terms of their full DNA sequences, or 'genomes' — has achieved enormous advances in recent years. There is already significant evidence to confirm early claims that the science now emerging around the sequencing of genomes will revolutionise all practices and production processes that are based in some way on the behaviour of living organisms. These range from the diagnosis and treatment of human disease, to the development of new foods and environment-friendly agricultural techniques.
The announcement in June 2000 of the partial completion of the Human Genome Project, for example, a project launched in the mid-1980s to sequence the complete human genome, was accompanied by widespread predictions that it would lead to a dramatic transformation of medical research and patient care.
It is currently estimated that the human genome contains between 28,000 and 40,000 genes. It will take a long time to determine and map the function of all of them, and even longer to understand how they interact with each other. Despite this, there is little doubt that the knowledge generated from this research will have profound implications for the ways in which we understand, research and practise health care in the future.
Similar predictions can be made about the way in which an enhanced understanding of the genomes of plants and animals is likely to transform agricultural productivity, leading to an ability to produce food more efficiently. Genomics is already allowing us to better understand some of the organisms we rely on to produce food, and others — such as pests, parasites and infectious agents — that constrain our ability to do so.
This understanding will, hopefully, allow us to exercise more sophisticated control over the way that we practise agriculture, as well as manage the relationship between farming and the environment more carefully.
New science, new regulations
Allied to new ways of doing things are new sets of rules, regulations and debates around how we do things. These are based on society's answers to a range of questions. For example, what are the risks and benefits? Who will and who should benefit? What are the moral and ethical implications of new kinds of science?
Such questions emphasise the fact that genomics is not just a revolution in the biomedical sciences. It also requires the social sciences to come forward and help us address questions of ethics, equity and access that are likely to be at the core of human development in the twenty-first century.
Genomics in the developing world
The field of genomics, and the social and ethical questions that it raises, are particularly pertinent to the developing world. Potentially, genomics can provide concrete solutions to a range of problems faced by these regions, including many kinds of both infectious and non-communicable diseases, malnutrition, food security and environmental degradation.
A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Toronto's Joint Centre for Bioethics, highlighted the following technologies as particularly relevant for developing countries:
- simple, hand-held testing devices using molecular-based diagnostics to conduct rapid, inexpensive checks for a variety of infectious diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and malaria. Researchers have made breakthroughs already with these technologies in Latin America in the diagnosis of leishmaniasis and dengue fever;
- genetically engineered vaccines that are cheaper, safer and more effective than current vaccines, and hold new promise in fighting HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. For example: using DNA technology to design an AIDS vaccine candidate specifically for Africa, or provide vaccines for diseases like East Coast Fever in livestock;
- genetically modified bacteria and plants that can clean up contaminated air, water and soil;
- alternatives to needle injections (for example, inhalable drugs and edible vaccines) that could make vaccine and drug delivery safer, easier to administer and potentially less expensive;
- computer-based tools to search data on human and nonhuman gene sequences for clues on preventing and treating infectious and non-communicable diseases;
- vaccines and vaginal microbicides that allow women to protect themselves from sexually transmitted infections; and
- genetically modified staple foods such as rice, potatoes, corn and cassava with enhanced nutritional value and disease and pest resistance.
These technologies could potentially transform both lives and livelihoods in developing countries in many different ways. As is often the case, however, the difficulty often lies not in the science itself, but in applying that science appropriately.
This is being overcome in a variety of ways. For example, public-private partnerships are being created through which public institutions drive the relevant research, and the private sector — with its greater experience of meeting the needs of the market — assumes responsibility for production and delivery. Partnerships between research institutions in the north and in the south are drawing together innovative science with local experience of how that science can be best applied.
Funding bodies and donors, too, are playing a role, placing increasing emphasis on concrete poverty alleviation and development objectives that could be addressed by genomics in new proposals and projects. Finally, new initiatives in developing countries, such as the recently announced Bioscience Facility for Eastern and Central Africa, are supporting genomics-based advances in research, regional networking and capacity building.
Barriers to application
Despite these developments, however, there are clear, often structural, constraints to the successful application of genomics research and technology in the developing world. Perhaps the most telling, and most stark, is what has become known as the '10/90 gap', where 90 per cent of all medical research is targeted at problems affecting only 10 per cent of the world's population.
If anything the 10/90 gap is exacerbated in the field of genomics, where a concern to generate a financial return on investment in research is leading to a focus on illnesses such a cancer and heart disease that occur in later life, and primarily in the developed world.
There is therefore a risk that biotechnology could lead to further disparities in health and wealth, as more developed countries become healthier, and the developing world continues to be characterised by infectious disease, chronic ill-health, environmental problems and a lack of opportunity.
Aware of this threat, various attempts are now being made to avoid the growth what has been called a 'genomics divide' between North and South. As mentioned above, for example, partnerships, political will and investment are beginning to refocus research and development across both the developed and the developing world.
The science of genomics has made huge leaps forward in recent years. It is society's responsibility to understand the implications of those leaps, manage the science, and ensure that it benefits all, in both rich and poor countries alike, as cheaply and efficiently as possible.
This article was previously part of SciDev.Net's quick guide to genomics and has been reformatted to become this feature.