Mapping genome in Singapore to help in war on disease

ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

New tech to be used for deeper insight into genetic variations unique to local communities

A team of scientists is attempting to map the genetic architecture of Singapore's communities.

Professor Ng Huck-Hui of the Genome Institute of Singapore and his team aim to find out if there is anything distinct that sets Singaporeans apart from the rest of the world.

If successful, the project could provide deeper insight into genetic variations unique to the population here.

This will in turn pave the way for doctors to tailor detection, prevention and treatment of diseases based on a person's genetic code.

"If you find significant variations in someone of Indian ethnicity, for example, you are then more able to say this is part of a standard Indian sequence," said Associate Professor William Hwang from the Singapore General Hospital, who is working with Prof Ng on the project.

 
  • Participants needed

  • All participants will have to go through an initial questionnaire and blood test. If shortlisted, they will have about 150ml of blood drawn. All participants - including children - must be above 21 years old. Those interested to be part of the project can contact the SGH Clinical Trials Resource Centre on 6326-6713 between 9am and 5.30pm during weekdays. They will be reimbursed for their time and travel costs.

The scientists will be looking at Singaporean Chinese, Malay and Indian genes. Past studies, such as the Singapore Genome Variation Project, have also looked at the slight DNA variations between the three main ethnic groups here.

While people of all races share most of their DNA, small differences - making up about 0.1 per cent of the genetic code - can account for whether someone is likely to get cancer, for instance, or responds well to certain medicines.

The groundwork for the ambitious Singapore Platinum Genome Project was laid more than a decade ago, when scientists working on the Human Genome Project announced that they had managed to identify all three billion "letters" in the human genetic make-up. Collectively, this set of chemical letters is known as the human genome, and contains everything needed to build, run and maintain the body.

The problem, said Prof Hwang, was that the technology that existed then could "read" only short bits of DNA at a time. It was like piecing together an entire movie from a jumble of individual frames.

"The kind of sequence that you finally lay out is based on inference - that this overlaps with this, that these fit together and so on," he said.

But now, the scientists will be using what is known as "long read" technology to sequence genetic material without breaking it up.

"It allows us to sequence DNA as a single molecule, and is the most cutting-edge technology available," said Prof Ng.

The home-grown project complements an international drive to sequence the genomes of 100,000 Asians in the next three to four years.

While people of all races share most of their DNA, small differences - making up about 0.1 per cent of the genetic code - can account for whether someone is likely to get cancer, for instance, or responds well to certain medicines.

To find the most suitable set of genes for their project, the scientists are recruiting some 100 families - one child and his or her parents - of Chinese, Malay and Indian ethnicities.

This will be narrowed down to five families of participants for each ethnic group. Finally, doctors will choose one family from each ethnicity as the reference for their project.

However, those who are selected will not be told in order to protect them. "We have to do this because your entire genome is for everybody to see," Prof Hwang said.

Sequencing an entire genome would help in understanding genetic variations. For example, certain abnormalities may be linked to certain diseases, explained Prof Hwang.

"If you recreate this abnormality in cells and it results in that particular disease, you would have made a significant discovery."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 08, 2016, with the headline 'Mapping genome in S'pore to help in war on disease'. Print Edition | Subscribe