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[KARACHI] A burgeoning genetics research collaboration between China and Pakistan has yielded its first result: the mapping of the genome of a Pakistani national.

The Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) and the International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences (ICCBS), Karachi, had agreed last year to work together on seven genomic projects, train Pakistani scientists, set up a genomics centre in Pakistan, and transfer state-of-the-art technology to Pakistan.

The first project involved sending genetic samples of the first volunteer, former science minister Atta-ur-Rahman, who is also ICCBS patron, to the BGI for mapping.

'Genome mapping' involves locating and identifying genes to create a map, akin to identifying towns and cities, to create a road map. Genome maps help scientists locate genes for human diseases, by tracking the complete genetic information of individuals and, families over generations.

Researchers at the Panjwani Centre for Molecular Medicine and Drug Research (PCMD), under the ICCBS, and BGI mapped Rahman’s genes in 10 months. ICCBS director Mohammad Iqbal Choudhary announced the results to the media last month (27 June). The results are yet to be published in a scientific journal.

This makes Pakistan the world's sixth and the first Islamic country to completely map a human genetic sequence, Choudhary said.

More projects are underway to gain insights into various population groups in Pakistan; genetic predisposition to disorders, including liver and heart disease; anaemia, diabetes, cancers, Alzheimer's disease and blood disorders, Choudhary told SciDev.Net.

It could lead to "significant advances in their diagnosis and treatment" Kamran Azim, assistant professor at the PCMD, said. 

"It is going to take more than two years to complete the genome projects and come up with the final conclusions about different aspects of the country's different population groups," Choudhary said.

BGI scientists are interested in studying the genetic structure and physiology of Pakistan's diverse ethnic groups, particularly those along the Makran coast, Balochistan province, and Kalash Desh in northern Pakistan, Choudhary said. 

Manzoor Hussain Soomro, chairman of the Pakistan Science Foundation, observed that the development could pave the way for better medical management and new drugs discovery.

But, he cautioned, such research could also raise ethical, legal and social concerns over confidentiality and misuse of genetic information by prospective employers, insurers, courts of law and family members.

Soomro said that though it is not yet clear who would safeguard the genome mapping data, it should logically be the responsibility of Pakistan's national bioethics committee under the Pakistan Council of Medical Research.

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