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[MONTREAL] An international partnership needs to be created to share the benefits of genomics research and apply them to the needs of developing countries, according to a report launched yesterday (7 October) at the 4th World Conference of Science Journalists.

The proposed Global Genomic Initiative (GGI) is described in a report called Genomics and Global Health written by Peter Singer and colleagues from the Canadian Programme on Genetics and Global Health at the University of Toronto.

Such an initiative, they suggest, could help the emergence of a 'health genomics divide' between rich and poor nations.

The researchers conclude that genomics and related biotechnologies have a role to play in achieving five out of the eight Millennium Development Goals, the set of targets agreed by UN member states in 2000, for addressing the problems faced by poor countries by 2015.

More broadly, it describes how genomics — the study of organisms' entire genetic sequence — can help address global health problems. Genetically-engineered vaccines, drug delivery systems that avoid the use of needles, and rapid diagnostic tests for diseases such as malaria are, for example, among the 'top ten' applications of genomics to human health detailed in the report.

The report outlines the researchers' vision of the global approach — the GGI — needed to realise the potential health benefits of genomics research. They suggest that genomics knowledge should be considered as a global public good, similar to the status given to biodiversity or the ozone layer.

The proposed GGI would provide a system of global governance, while boosting the biotechnology capacity of poor countries, and leading the development of ethics policies.

"The GGI would give developing countries access to knowledge essential to reaping the benefits [of genomics]," said Abdullah Daar, one of the report's authors, at its launch in Montreal, Canada.

The proposed initiative would be a network of researchers, government staff, non-governmental organisations, and citizens groups. Through it, says the report, the relative risks and benefits of new technologies could be assessed, enabling developing countries to take advantage of new genomics-based technologies.

"Developing countries have to be in the driving seat," said Singer. "Each country needs to strike a balance between constructing short- and long-term solutions."

According to the report — which has been prepared under the auspices of The Science and Technology Task Force of the United Nations Millennium Project — developing countries are unlikely to absorb and apply new technologies unless they take the appropriate action.

"We are bridging the digital divide in retrospect," said Singer, referring to the gap between rich and poor nation in their access to technologies such as computers. "[But] we have a very good chance of preventing a health genomics divide."

The report highlights the importance not only of transferring technology to poor countries, but also of promoting active participation in science and innovation. It says that cooperation between developing countries is important as some nations, such as China, Cuba, Brazil and India, have already made big investments in genomics and biotechnology related to health.

Singer envisages a situation whereby "Cuba helps India helps Egypt helps South Africa".

Cuban researchers, for example, have developed the world's only meningitis B vaccine. And Daar points out that China recently licensed the world's first use of gene therapy, in order to treat naso-pharangeal cancer.

During the research for the report, the state of health-related genomics and biotechnology in China, Cuba, Brazil, Egypt, India, South Africa and South Korea was assessed in detail. Findings of these studies are due to be published in a supplement to Nature Biotechnology in December 2004. In the same month, a summary of Genomics and Global Health will be published in the inaugural edition of the open access journal PLoS Medicine.

Link to full report Genomics and Global Health

Link to University of Toronto Centre

Link to Genome Canada

Link to PloS Medicine

Link to Millennium Development Goals