View Full Version : Questions Surround Mexican Genome Project

Magda Hassan
05-22-2009, 12:20 PM
An interesting and timely article about the Mexican genome project. There was one done in Iceland several years ago. Iceland has a very homogenous genetic population due to its initial settlement and isolated geography. Billions were made from the Icelandic genome piracy by the biotech companies. And who can forget 'Spleenless in Seatle"? Most had no idea it was a for-profit endeavor. Though there can also be many positive health outcomes from genetic research it is a two edged sword with the underlying eugenic potential also.

See also this link to a document on problems of genetic information management in Latin American (in Spanish)

SCIENCE: Questions Surround Mexican Genome Project
By Diego Cevallos*

Studying the human DNA sequence.

Credit:Photo Stock (http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=46920)

MEXICO CITY, May 20 (Tierramérica) - In Mexico scientists are seeking volunteers who are obese, diabetic or suffering from cancer or other diseases, in order to study their genes. The results will help fill in a genetic map of the Mexican population.

Genetic science may help lead to an exact definition of which pharmaceuticals and what dosages are most effective in treating an individual or group, or the most appropriate epidemiological strategies for preventing disease, or even manipulating specific genes.

The Mexican genetic map presented on May 11 took four years and some 21.5 million dollars to prepare, and is at the core of a project aimed at improving national public health. But it also opens the door for ethical questions in an area with little or no legislation, warn experts.

In four or five more years, after comparing the genes of healthy and ill Mexicans, and putting those data in the context of the genetic map, scientists will be able to determine which genes mean a predisposition to contracting certain diseases, Gerardo Jiménez, director of the national genomic medicine institute, INMEGEN, established in 2004, told Tierramérica.

Eduardo Rodríguez, project coordinator for the Bioethics Unit of the Pan-American Health Organisation (PAHO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO), based at the University of Chile, applauded Mexico for its achievement, which makes that country a "genome leader in the developing world."

Having a map opens the way to solving many public health problems, "but it is not a panacea," Rodríguez told Tierramérica from his offices in Santiago.

The genetic information could lead to stigmatising some populations linked to certain diseases, and could give rise to new forms of discrimination, he said.

"Also, there is a series of other ethical and practical problems that will emerge and which have not been legislated in practically any Latin American country," Rodríguez warned.

The genome map of Mexico, which has a population of 107 million, is an analysis of samples offered voluntarily by 300 people of mixed-race heritage from six regions of the country, and from 30 Zapoteca Indians in the southern state of Oaxaca.

"The fact that our map is basically of ‘mestizos’ (people of mixed race) allows us to think that the same would apply to other Latin American populations, because we have similar origins: indigenous people, Spaniards and some Africans. In that sense, the Mexican map has a regional impact," said Jiménez.

The differences found between these mestizos and other populations for which genome information exists – Asian, African and European – could explain why Mexicans are more likely to suffer diabetes, cancer or morbid obesity.

It could also provide data that reveal the cause of the apparently higher risk of death among Mexicans if they are infected with the new influenza type A H1N1 virus, widely known as swine flu.

But it is too soon to jump to conclusions. "The map we presented is a catalogue of frequent genetic variations in the Mexican population, but it is not associated with specific diseases. The next step is to uncover those relationships," explained the INMEGEN director.

Sometime around 2014, the institute will offer data that could help make "collective and individual decisions" about health issues," said Jiménez, a pediatrician with a doctorate in molecular genetics and a post-doctorate in genomic medicine from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland in the U.S.

Since the late 1990s, public and private organisations around the world have been carrying out projects to unravel the genetic maps of certain populations.

In April 2003, the Human Genome Project, led by the United States, presented the complete human DNA sequence.

In Latin America, only the wealthy can take advantage of genomic medicine, and there is no sign that this will change in the future, because "we are in a region of great social inequalities," noted Rodríguez.

A study of the problem of genetic information management in Latin America, from the Bioethics Unit and coauthored by Rodríguez, warns that without effective regulation this new branch of medicine will have "negative social consequences."

"The region does not have adequate legislation. Chile, Brazil and Mexico have some recent laws, but in general there is much left to do, and it is an urgent question," he said.

In November 1997, UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) enacted the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights, which established the non-binding principles of people’s right not to be discriminated against for their genes, and the confidentiality of that information.

But there have been few advances on these issues, according to the 2006 study "Outlook for Legislation on Human Genomes in Latin America and the Caribbean", by the Autonomous National University of Mexico (UNAM) and the UNESCO Bioethics Network of Latin America and the Caribbean.

Argentina, for example, lacks adequate integral legislation to cover the problems generated by the spectacular advance of science, says the report

The study says that in Bolivia, Cuba and Chile there is a lack of standards and jurisprudence, while in Paraguay and Uruguay no national standards or regulations mention the human genome.

Jiménez agreed that the outlook applies even to Mexico, despite the country being fully involved in genomic scientific development.

But in the May 7 edition of the U.S.-based "New England Journal of Medicine", some scientists report that the processes of comparing genomes of healthy and ill persons, which has been proposed in Mexico, could prove disappointing.

According to the journal article, diseases like cancer or diabetes do not appear to be triggered by specific genes, but rather by a series of genetic combinations that remain difficult to identify.

Furthermore, even given the same genetic variations, the risk that a disease manifests also depends on whether the genes were inherited from the father or the mother.

(*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.) (END/2009)