Support pledged for Southern genomics research

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[HYDERABAD] The Human Genome Organisation (HUGO) has pledged support for developing countries’ efforts in genomics research and its use in treating disease.

Genomics — the study of the entire set of genes in an organism — has the potential to treat complex diseases like diabetes and heart disease that are controlled by multiple sets of genes and influenced by environmental factors such as diet and lifestyle.

Research in the field may also lead to ‘personalised medicine’ — choosing drugs and dosages according to an individual’s responses to them.

"The social landscape of science is changing … Developing countries across Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Africa are now entering the field of genomics research," said HUGO president Edison Liu, addressing delegates at the 13th Human Genome Meeting last week (26 September) in Hyderabad, India.

HUGO will assist developing countries by helping them develop research infrastructure and technical expertise, said Liu, who is also executive director of the Genome Institute of Singapore.

He added that HUGO is becoming more inclusive as an organisation, with representatives from countries "who are new entrants in genomics research".

Some developing countries already have their own genome initiatives to analyse genetic variations within their populations and its links to key diseases.

The Indian Genome Variation (IGV) initiative ­— a government-funded collaboration of several institutes in the country — released the first large-scale database of genomic diversity in the Indian population in 2008. 

The database is being used to detect genes that pre-dispose individuals to specific disorders and adverse drug reactions, and gain insights into population migration.

South African scientists have submitted a proposal to the country’s department of science and technology for a national genomic medicine research programme to study the richness of human diversity in Africa, and its links with disease susceptibility and treatment. The Africa Genome Education Institute is actively engaging the public in discussions on genomic issues.  

"Africa is the origin of humankind, yet very little research is reported from this continent on genomic diversity," says Raj Ramesar of the MRC Human Genetics Research Unit, University of Cape Town.

Ramesar’s team plans to build on initial studies on five indigenous southern African populations, which offer evidence for human origins south of the Sahara, and shed light on population migration to the southern tip of Africa.

Similarly, scientists in Mexico embarked on the Mexican Genome Diversity Project (MGDP) in 2000 to analyse the genetic basis of complex diseases in the Mexican population and improve healthcare.

The international genome diversity project HapMap does not include Latin American populations, says Alfredo Hidalgo-Miranda, a scientist from Mexico’s National Institute of Genomic Medicine.

Mexico, for example, has 62 indigenous groups. Most of its people are Mestizos, a population group that is a mix of American Indian, Spanish and African races. Initial studies under MGDP show genomic diversity in the Mestizos that is not represented in HapMap.