The global genomics race: Asia, the UK and beyond

Philippa Brice

12 April 2016

An international consortium of Asian partners is to sequence 100,000 Asian genomes in a bid to redress the bias towards non-Asian populations in current datasets and underpin personalised medicine.

The GenomeAsia 100K project, launched earlier this year, will sequence genomes from all major ethnic population groups and at least forty Asian countries; Asia is home to more than half of the world’s population. 50,000 DNA samples have already been collected, and initial work will focus on creating suitable reference genome sequences for key populations, including from Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Indonesia; India, Pakistan and Bangladesh; Japan, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Nepal and Bhutan.

Providing personalised care for Asian populations

It is hoped that the project will eventually help health professionals to provide drugs and medical care better tailored to Asian patients, as well as shedding new light on the causes of disease and the potential to develop new treatments. Scientific chair for the project consortium, Professor Stephan Schuster of Singapore's Nanyang Technological University (NTU), which is to host the project database, observed: "There is a massive bias in medical research; Europeans have been developing drugs for Europeans without asking how compatible these pharmaceuticals are for the rest of the world."

Meanwhile new partners and collaborators (and funders – a total of US$150 million is needed) are being sought for the venture via the supporting Singapore venture capital group Emerge Ventures. Existing corporate partners as well as (inevitably) the global sequencing firm Illumina include the Korean Macrogen, and Indian MedGenome companies.

UK comparisons

The GenomeAsia 100K also goes one step beyond the landmark UK 100,000 Genomes Project (100KGP) in plans to include not only clinical and DNA sequence information, but also microbiome data and lifestyle information. It also differs in the approach to data; whilst the UK data will be held by the National Health Service (NHS) owned company Genomics England, and made available to public and private sector researchers (with access fees), the Asian data will be shared only with other consortium members for the first 18-36 months before being made available to researchers.

The project says partners will adhere to the basis of the US Genetic Information Non-discrimination Act (GINA) of 2008, prohibiting the use of genomic information for employment or insurance purposes. The Asian data will be anonymised before being made available publicly to researchers. Genomics England maintains that completely fool-proof anonymisation can never be guaranteed, with justification (security experts usually say that if you can encrypt it, you can crack it), and focus instead on explaining that the information will be held behind their own NHS firewall and cannot be exported by companies, only mined for information.

UK efforts to share personalised medicine

Meanwhile, the UK’s ambitions to lead the world scientifically and generate much-needed revenue for the beleaguered NHS via the 100,000 Genomes Project have led to new efforts from Healthcare UK, a government body charged with supporting international sales and partnerships for UK healthcare providers.

special meeting for delegates from fifteen countries (including Kuwait and Malaysia) was held last week as part of new efforts to showcase UK capabilities in genomics, both research and healthcare provision, and particularly new plans to integrate expanded clinical genomics services within the NHS. Life sciences Minister George Freeman MP said to the gathered representatives at the meeting: “Our message to companies, to scientists, to countries around the world, is to come and join us in this exciting mission”.

Healthcare UK recently issued a suite of new brochures encouraging other countries to come to the UK as a source of expertise and experience in different aspects of healthcare:  infrastructure, health systems development, clinical services, healthcare training, patient safety – and genomics and personalised medicine

This latter offers a range of options for international clients wishing to establish their own genome projects, ranging from UK assistance in providing education, training and expertise to countries to build their own capacity and capability in genomics, through to the creation of International Genomic Medicine Centres (GMCs) like those created in the UK as part of the 100,000 Genomes Project. 

International game on for genomics

Whilst the UK is one of the first countries to embrace the potential of genomic medicine to transform healthcare, and to make substantial investment generating in the genomic data to underpin it, they have global competitors besides the new Asian effort to reach 100,000 genomes, including Obama’s massive Precision Medicine Initiative and possible plans for an Australian equivalent. Other countries also have their individual initiatives, from the venerable Estonian Genome Project (established in 2000) to the more recent Qatar Genome initiative. Individual projects vary, however, in how far they attempt to bridge the gap between generating a valuable research resource, and creating a genomic medicine service.

The UK hopes th at their unique NHS, and their plans to embed modern genomic medicine firmly within it, will give them an edge as the go-to for international consultation on all things personalised medicine. This depends on just how successful they are in creating an environment where new tools to improve care are rapidly made available throughout the health service, to benefit patients everywhere – not merely in centres of research or teaching excellence, as is too often the case at present. 

Meanwhile, in purely scientific terms, the Asian genome initiative could ultimately take the prize of all the projects, thanks to the wide genomic diversity of Asian populations.

More from us