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Study Says Genomic Research Could Be Economic Boon to Developing Countries

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – New research supports the idea that developing countries can — and should — establish genomic research initiatives that will help them share in the downstream economic and health benefits of such studies.
In six papers appearing online today in a Nature Reviews Genetics supplement, investigators from the McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health, a think tank affiliated with the University of Toronto and the University Health Network, assessed genomics programs in Mexico, India, Thailand, and South Africa. By showcasing the innovation in these countries — and discussing major trends and challenges — the work also serves as a guide for other countries keen to claim a stake in their genomic future.
“Benefits of this emerging science cannot be an exclusive luxury reserved for wealthier industrialized countries,” co-author Béatrice Séguin, a pharmacy researcher at the McLaughlin-Rotman Centre, said in a statement. “Instead, it must be universally advanced by developed and developing countries alike to prevent an increased widening of already huge difference in global health care quality.”
Séguin and her colleagues focused on genomic research and medicine because of its potential influence on global health in the future. They did more than 75 interviews with scientists, government officials, ethicists and individuals from non-government organizations, the media, regulatory and other agencies familiar with the genomics programs in each of the four countries.
“Our findings should be of significance to those emerging and developing economies that are interested in the evolution of genomic studies, particularly in their intersection with public health and as potential sources of economic activity,” the authors wrote.
The research focused on major ongoing or proposed projects in each country. In Mexico, for instance, the authors looked at the progress made by the National Institute of Genomic Medicine, or INMEGEN, an institute established by the Mexican government in 2004 under the Mexican National Institutes of Health that is working toward determining the genomic diversity of populations in Mexico.
In Thailand, they noted, the Thai SNP Discovery Project and the Thai Centre for Excellence in Life Sciences Pharmacogenomics Project are teasing apart Thai genetic variation and its effect on certain drug treatments. Meanwhile, the Thailand Centre of Excellence in Life Sciences is using genomics to compare Thai patients and controls and is collaborating with Japanese researchers to study tsunami victims with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Thailand also has a burgeoning private sector that is embracing genomics not only for its potential health applications, but also as a way of developing medical tourism, the researchers noted.
For its part, the Indian government is leveraging India’s large population and well-kept genealogical records to create a genomic infrastructure within the country. It is funding the Indian Genome Variation consortium, a network of seven research institutions creating a national genetic databank containing information from several Indian sub-populations. And last year an Indian life sciences company called Avesthagen announced plans to embark on a five-year, $32 million plan to genotype the country’s entire Parsi population.
In South Africa, on the other hand, genomics initiatives are at an earlier stage, co-author Billie-Jo Hardy, a University of Toronto graduate student, told GenomeWeb Daily News. Efforts there have focused largely on raising awareness about such research. Even so, there are projects aimed at understanding the genetic variation within the genetically, culturally, and linguistically diverse populations in the country.
In 2002, a government-commissioned report recommended characterizing genetic variation in South African populations in order to detect gene-disease interactions and identify pharmacogenomic trends. And, Séguin and her colleagues noted, a Johannesburg university is sampling individuals from Zulu, Xhosa, Herero, San, and Sotho-Tswana tribes in an effort to understand genetic variation in those South African populations.
Overall, Séguin and her colleagues identified several major genomics themes in Mexico, India, and Thailand — including political will, institutional leadership, a desire for local health benefits, genomic sovereignty concerns, and interest in producing knowledge-based economic benefits associated with genomics and personalized medicine. They also discussed the challenges remaining in each country.
For example, Hardy and Séguin said, because research funding is often very limited, genomics programs in developing countries tend to be more streamlined, focusing on the diseases common to populations in the country. In Mexico, there is a keen interest in the genomics research related to diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer, which cause high mortality. In South Africa, on the other hand, researchers hope to apply genomics to health issues such as HIV and tuberculosis.
Genomic infrastructure is expected to contribute to local economies, first by building a science and technology infrastructure and later through commercial products based on genomic research that can improve health and stimulate local economies. By maintaining genomic sovereignty while also participating in research collaborations, today’s reports emphasized, developing countries will be able to reap the long-term economic and health benefits stemming from genomic research.
“The world has reached an historic moment on the path to genomic medicine — the point where theory is about to be translated into practice,” senior author Abdallah Daar, a public health researcher at the McLaughlin-Rotman Centre, said in a statement. “Developing countries cannot rely on the altruism of western economic interests to address specific health needs of their populations.”

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