Scrutinising genes of a population to boost health and treatment

The Next Generation Sequencing lab at the Genome Institute of Singapore, A*STAR, which facilitates the sequencing of genomic data.
The Next Generation Sequencing lab at the Genome Institute of Singapore, A*STAR, which facilitates the sequencing of genomic data.PHOTO: GENOME INSTITUTE OF SINGAPORE

SINGAPORE - A person's genes hold clues to his health and well-being.

The diversity of Singapore's ethnic groups translates into a rich genetic diversity in the country's population, noted Professor Patrick Tan, executive director of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's Genome Institute of Singapore (GIS).

For a few years now, scientists here have been mapping the DNA of various groups of people, as having a database detailing the genomes of healthy Singaporeans will help clinicians accurately identify disease-causing mutations.

"This is important as studies have shown that usage of the wrong genome database from other populations, such as the Caucasian populations, can result in misdiagnoses," said Prof Tan.

Many conditions, such as cancer and heart disease, can present differently in Asians, who remain under-represented in genomic programmes.

Prof Tan said a small percentage of seemingly healthy individuals could be carrying insidious mutations that may predispose them or their family members to serious medical conditions such as cancer.

"By identifying these individuals early, we can begin to intercept and even prevent these serious conditions before they develop into late-stage disease."

In 2019, researchers from GIS and other public institutions completed sequencing the DNA of 2,780 Chinese, 903 Malay and 1,127 Indian volunteers.

Mapping the genes of a population is also vital to precision medicine, targeted treatment that takes into account a patient's genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors.

In April, it was announced that under Singapore's National Precision Medicine programme, the genetic make-up of 100,000 healthy Singaporeans and up to 50,000 patients with specific diseases will be mapped over a few years, creating a larger database to work with.

Prof Tan added that the country can be seen as "a microcosm of Asia" since the genetic diversity of the Singapore population covers a significant representation of Asia's.

"Our made-in-Singapore findings may also impact the health of other Asian communities as well."