Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 24 May 2019

Racial 'bias' is roadblock to success of genetic studies

Individually-targeted healthcare is being hampered by the narrow focus of research, Milken Institute summit hears

Sumit Jamuar, Global Gene Corp during the session on ‘The Cost of Chronic Disease and the Future of Treatment at the Milken Institute MENA Summit 2019Pawan Singh / The National
Sumit Jamuar, Global Gene Corp during the session on ‘The Cost of Chronic Disease and the Future of Treatment at the Milken Institute MENA Summit 2019Pawan Singh / The National

The "amazing promise" of individually-targeted healthcare may never be fulfilled due to a "bias" in genetic research towards people of a European background.

The Milken Institute summit in Abu Dhabi heard that rapid advances are being made in how information about an individual’s genetics can be used to keep them healthy.

Particular genes can be identified which may make a person susceptible to a particular disease, while analysis of genetics can also be used to find out which drug will prove more effective in treatment.

However, the vast majority of genomic analysis undertaken, 81 per cent, relates to people of European descent, with a further 16 per cent based on people from China.

It means far less is known about how genetics relates to health in native people from countries in places such as the Middle East or Africa.

Sumit Jamuar, chief executive of Global Gene Corp, said during the summit that the issue needs to be urgently addressed.

“Without solving that bias, the amazing promise we have in precision medicine is never going to come to realisation,” said Mr Jamuar.

He said his company is working to build a greater understanding of the “book of life” of other races.

He used the example of a genetic quirk that had been discovered that was linked to epilepsy, a finding that was widely accepted in the medical community. However, it was later discovered that the same feature did not have the same impact in Indians that it had in Caucasians.

“It offers promise. Genomics can give us the next generation of drugs that will be faster, better, cheaper,” Mr Jamuar said.

“It gives me cause for optimism. But we have to solve the fundamental problem. If your data set is biased, you are never going to get to the right solution.”

As genetic sequencing becomes cheaper, babies could soon have their make-up analysed at birth, it was claimed.

However, panelists also warned against an over-reliance on new drugs or genetic sequencing to treat some chronic conditions. Patients with type two diabetes are increasingly asking for the latest drug, said Hawaa Althahak Almansouri, deputy medical director at the Imperial College London Diabetes Centre in Abu Dhabi, when the most effective treatment remains simply losing weight.

“I’m very excited, but not naively so,” she said about the potential of genetically-targeted treatments. “Patients come to me and say 'there’s this new gene out there, do I have it, should I get sequenced?' I would just be careful. Just because you have a mutation, it can mean nothing and it could mean everything.

“It has great potential, but it has pitfalls right now. It can cause inappropriate treatment, it can cause people to worry inappropriately. So I’m very optimistic in genetics as a diagnostic tool, being a treatment tool, making treatment specific to individuals. But take it with a grain of salt.

“If governments decide to apply this I have no objections whatsoever, but make sure it’s experienced people that know what they’re talking about. Because this can be taken many different ways and it can be misapplied horribly.”

Updated: February 13, 2019 10:09 PM