Tens of thousands in HK to have their DNA sequenced in government-backed genome project

17-Jan-2019 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:00 AM Print This Post

Tens of thousands of Hongkongers will have their entire genetic code decrypted in a government-backed project aimed at building a database to boost diagnoses of rare illnesses and aid bespoke cancer treatments.

Whole genome sequencing, a process which reveals all the information stored in a person’s DNA, will be performed on the targeted group, which will include people with uncommon genetic disorders and cancers.

In a document on the Hong Kong Genome Project, which the Food and Health Bureau handed to the Legislative Council on Tuesday for discussion next Monday, the bureau revealed that the project would cover 20,000 cases. As two or more samples might be collected in a case, such as collecting data from a patient and their parents for an undiagnosed genetic disorder, it was estimated the project would sequence 40,000 to 50,000 genomes.

According to the plan, the project first announced by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor in her policy address last year will be conducted in two phases. The pilot phase will first cover 2,000 cases of undiagnosed disorders and cancers which are possibly linked to hereditary genetic components. The main phase will look into 18,000 cases, including diseases covered in the pilot phase and other diseases that would benefit from whole genome sequencing.

Researchers will be able to access the anonymised data for studies including those related to cancer and how genes affect a person’s response to drugs. That information, it is hoped, will help in diagnosing uncommon disorders and developing more personalised treatment for cancer patients.

“Based on international experience, the introduction of the Hong Kong Genome Project would enhance the diagnostic rate of uncommon genetic disorders, enabling more targeted clinical management,” the bureau stated in the document.

Information collected in the project would also “help clinicians to select the treatments more likely to be effective in each individual case”.

Professor Dennis Lo Yuk-ming, a Chinese University scientist whose expertise covers genetics and medicine, said the aimed-for number of cases was reasonable and comparable to similar projects done in other parts of the world.

“It is very timely now,” said Lo, also a member of a working group on the project. “If we don’t do it now, we are going to be falling further behind.”

Similar projects have been done in other countries, such as the 100,000 Genomes Project launched in Britain in 2012 and the Singapore 10K Genome Project introduced in 2016.

The Hong Kong government has proposed setting up a company, tentatively named the Hong Kong Genome Institute, to coordinate the project, with others.

It has earmarked a lump sum of HK$682 million (US$87 million) to cover the project. To support the operation of the institute, a subvention of about HK$87 million per year on average for six years would also be provided, starting from 2019/20.



Category: Hong Kong

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