Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Sequencing the Filipino genome

An article published recently in Philippine-based newspapers caught my attention, and it has something to do with the search for the Filipino genome. Mankind’s fascination with the complete human genome has become more intense as our genetic code starts to unravel the mysteries of the origin of life.
Dr. Michael Purugganan, a genome expert and dean of science at New York University (NYU), in a January interview said that “a systematic analysis of the genome of Filipinos will allow us to see what genetic diseases we might have, which might help doctors.” This is a statement compatible to what scientists and other enthusiastic proponents of the Human Genome Project (HGP) have generally claimed the study has achieved.
HGP was started in 1989, a complex multidisciplinary scientific enterprise directed at mapping and sequencing all of the human DNA, and determining aspects of its function After the rough draft of the study was presented in 2000, former US President Bill Clinton announced that “mapping the human genome would lead to the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of most, if not all, human diseases.” Dr. Francis Collins, former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), who led the HGP and now director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), echoed the same promise after HGP was completed in 2003, when he said the project would lead to a “complete transformation in therapeutic medicine.”
Brave new world of genomics. Photo courtesy of WestJMed 2001.
Click link to
view The Human Genome Project, 3D Animation.
But to go beyond what human genome sequencing can accomplish is a bit disturbing to say the least, not to mention various bioethical concerns that it raises to the surface. Take for example Dr. Purugganan’s statement that “just as important is that it (human genome) allows us to see who we are, to tell the story of who we are. That’s a very powerful idea, that we as Filipinos can go to our DNA and see who we are and what makes us different.”
In addition to foretelling disease and its cure, it is almost akin to saying that our genome can give us insights on why we behave in a particular way, or why we took upon certain cultural habits like the predisposition to sing or dance. Or that it could explain to us certain philosophical conundrums like free will, for instance.
It is here where an almost blind adherence to the power and potential of genome studies becomes problematic, to the extent that their conclusions or inferences could be seen as culturally insensitive, and perhaps, even racist. Not to mention that some researchers are now impeaching the much-ballyhooed achievements of the human genome project, that the project amounts to a sell-out and a financial and scientific debacle encouraging genetic discrimination and eugenics. HGP critics are similarly saying that any cures resulting from the project are still years away from realization if they can be realized at all.
My knowledge of science is very rudimentary so I will not second-guess the claims of scientists on what the human genome can accomplish in terms of its usefulness in diagnosing diseases and finding therapeutic cure. Besides, for more than ten years of research and continuing studies, without doubt HGP has trail blazed a brave new world of medicine.
However, it is in the area outside of the medical field that genomic studies or the use of genetic findings might expose the limits of the human genome. Being able to answer the question, which Dr. Purugganan has also struggled with by himself, what being a Filipino means genetically appears to have only a heuristic significance. So, in answer to the question, Dr. Purugganan is probably right to suggest that “genetically we’re mixtures of Taiwanese, Chinese, Indonesian, Indian, Arab, Spanish, probably some American and British. It’s just different degrees.” Beyond that, any further extrapolation could be purely speculative and does not conform to the original purpose of studying the human genome.
There are inherent risks in juxtaposing conclusions from one field of study, no matter the scientific rigour and exactitude employed, on other issues that are self-evidently unrelated save that they concern the humanity in all of us. A foremost example is the presupposed connection between genetics and individual intelligence which the Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould so ably deconstructed in his 1981 book, The Mismeasure of Man.
The human genome. Photo courtesy of WestJMed.According to its critics, there
is no certainty that genetic knowledge will give rise to genetic therapies. Click
link to view Human Genome
Project - Ethical, Legal & Social Implications
Another example is the claim made by some economists that a right amount of genetic diversity is necessary in order to buoy up a country’s economy, a good example of which is the United States. In other words, at the heart of this new claim is that a country’s genetic diversity can predict the success of its economy. Such claim suggests that inversely a country’s poverty could be the result of its citizen’s genetic make-up, which borders on genetic determinism, and even racism. This debate is throwing cautionary wind to a new field that blends genetics with economics, sometimes called genoeconomics. But isn’t this not unlike the old debate about eugenics that caught fire in the early decades of the 20th century? At that time, many countries practised eugenics by promoting genetic screening, marriage restrictions, racial segregation and segregation of the mentally ill, compulsory sterilization, forced abortions, and genocide.
The concept of an ideal level of genetic variation, especially one that is engineered to foster economic growth, is as frightening as the indefensible practices of ethnic cleansing, eugenics or genocide. This is a clear example of misuse of data, according to some concerned geneticists who have debunked genetic diversity as being independent from human migration and shared history. “Such haphazard methods and erroneous assumptions of statistical independence could equally find a genetic cause for the use of chopsticks,” these geneticists wrote.
In response to their critics, the genoeconomists argued that they are simply using genetic diversity as a proxy for immeasurable cultural, historical and biological factors that influence economies. If that is the case, then, it is perhaps not really genetic diversity itself that is responsible for its correlation with economic development, but a lot of it could be attributed to culture.
Another much-criticized undertaking is the ambitious Human Genome Diversity Project proposed by Stanford professor Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza. This project attempts to gather further genetic data from populations around the world but Dr. Sforza was accused of "cultural insensitivity, neocolonialism, and biopiracy."
Biopiracy, which is a form of bioprospecting, occurs where indigenous knowledge of nature is used by others for profit without permission from and with little or no compensation or recognition to the indigenous people who originated them. For example, drawing on indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants which is later patented by medical companies without recognizing that the knowledge is not new or invented by the patenter, and thus deprives the indigenous community to their rights to commercial exploitation that they themselves had developed.
In 2000, the US corporation RiceTec attempted to patent certain hybrids of basmati rice and semi-dwarf long-grain rice until the Indian government intervened and several claims of the patent were invalidated. The European Commission has also agreed to protect basmati rice under its regulations pertaining to geographical indications.
This raises a relevant question about Dr. Purugganan’s work on rice genome studies with the Laguna-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). IRRI has been instrumental in developing new rice varieties through the use of rice genetic diversity. Yet, why does the Philippines, where IRRI’s research and development work takes place, continue to suffer chronic rice shortage year after year that we have to import rice from other countries? Who has the patent for our miracle rice and benefitting from it?
We could only hope that Dr. Purugganan, who heads NYU laboratories in New York and Abu Dhabi primarily studying the evolution of plant genomes, could focus more on improving affordable rice varieties for local consumption instead of asking what it means to be a native Filipino. At least, this will put his talent to practical use and engender agricultural production for Filipino consumption, instead of merely allowing private corporations to rake their profits up for food production derived from genetically-modified crops.
There is no doubt genetics will someday fully result in the decoding of the genome to solve humanity’s health problems by using genetic markers that will provide useful information for common diseases. But whether genetics or sequencing the Filipino human genome in particular can help us better appreciate our ancestry, history and culture as a people, is something that remains to be seen.

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