Using microbial genome data for global public health

15 November 2011

A consensus report has been released following an expert meeting organized by The National Food Institute, Danish Technical University, on microbiological genomic identification systems. The meeting bought together scientists and managers to discuss the development of a global system to allow genomic data to be aggregated, shared and used in an effective way to tackle global public health challenges in relation to infectious diseases.

The report states that new genomic technologies such as whole-genome sequencing hold promise for early detection, prevention and control of current and emerging infectious diseases. However, effective use will require collaboration between a number of stakeholders including clinicians, epidemiologists, bioinformaticians as well as regulators and ethicists.

It outlines the concept of a system that would allow sharing of genomic information as well as technical and implementation issues. Experts agreed that a global system should be achievable in the next 5-10 years, but requires a paradigm shift in the way data is accessed across disciplines. Traditionally the focus has been on single pathogens in particular disciplines e.g. virology or bacteriology, the new system would require merging data across disciplines. They also call for a transparent system with a key component being translational activities that provide information to end-users and other stakeholders.

Technical issues include ensuring standardisation and harmonisation of data formats, as well as interoperability with existing systems. Barriers to implementation include obstacles to the free sharing of genomic data; however, the experts felt that communication is key, both between stakeholders and in general, so that the value of such a system is understood by all those involved.

New genomic technologies are having an increasingly important impact in pubic health. Medical practice is set to be revolutionized by both pathogen sequencing (see previous news) as well as human genome sequencing (see press release). However, both these areas require cross-collaborative work and the development of transparent and equitable systems to ensure their effective implementation within healthcare.

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