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Searching For Disease Clues in Genetic Diversity

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New effort to study genetic diversity in Latin Americans, specifically in Mexico, could shed light on diseases

Jeinny Solis S.

Over the last few years, scientists have discovered hundreds of genetic variants linked to disease. But the vast majority of that research has focused on people of European, Asian, and African descent. A new effort to catalog genetic diversity among people in Mexico--who along with other Latin Americans have a unique ancestry--could shed light on diseases that affect these groups disproportionately, and on why some drugs may work more or less effectively in these populations. The research might also help uncover rare genetic variants responsible for a significant portion of the genetic risk of disease.

"If personalized medicine is going to become a global phenomenon, then scientists need to understand the genomes of all the world's populations," says Gerardo Jimenez-Sanchez, former director of the National Institute of Genomic Medicine, in Mexico. (The institute, created in 2004, and known by the acronym INMEGEN, is analogous to the U.S. National Human Genome Research Institute.)

Hispanics are a relatively young--about 500-year-old--amalgam of three major continental groups--European, Native American, and African--and make up about 15 percent of the world's population. "Within that area is so much environmental and genetic variability that you can really leverage the intrinsic diversity to your scientific advantage," says Esteban Burchard, a physician and scientist at the University of California, San Francisco. For example, if a certain disease is much more common in one ancestral group, scientists need only screen the DNA inherited from that group in a person of mixed ancestry. That significantly cuts the amount of DNA that must be examined in order to find genes linked to the disease.

From Technology Review
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