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WHO Seeks Genomics Public Health Challenges

By a GenomeWeb staff reporter

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The World Health Organization has started a new effort to identify the major priorities for using genomics to address public health problems in developing nations over the next decade.

WHO will seek the counsel of hundreds of international science and public health experts to identify critical challenges or bottlenecks that need to be overcome by developing countries to enable them to use genomic technologies.

The organization plans to use this consultation process to come up with a list of the top 10 priorities for applying genomics to public health, which it plans to provide its member states in 2012 to help guide their efforts.

These grand challenges, according to WHO, are major problems and issues in public health in developing countries for which genomics can serve as an integrated or significant part of the solution. They could be a simple problem, such as a lack of resources, lack of access to medical care, lack of research capacity, and other barriers that, if removed, would help to solve a public health problem.

"It is a common misconception that genomics has nothing to offer low and middle-income countries with much more limited health resources," the UK's Foundation for Genomics and Population Health (PHG Foundation), which will serve as part of the Scientific Advisory Board on the project, said in a statement today. "In fact, genomics can sometimes offer new and more cost-effective solutions to major health problems, whether via 'leapfrog' technologies, or new ways of using existing genomics knowledge in a different environment."

In its project announcement, WHO said that a list of major priorities could help policy makers avoid the genomics divide between countries by "focusing strategies and strengthening capacity in developing countries" and by helping to drive "investment, research, and development in priority areas in a manner closely tuned with global societal values, expectations, and perceived needs."

By October of this year, WHO's Scientific Board will receive the top 10 grand challenges and it will develop those into a list of specific research efforts and goals that will be needed to address each goal. WHO expects to begin disseminating the grand challenges in April 2012 to member states and through publication in a peer-reviewed journals and workshops.

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