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WHO: Genome Research Offers Great Promise - 2002-05-01

In a report just out, the World Health Organization says genetic research offers great promise for the health of people around the world. The report (Genomics and World Health) by the WHO says genetic research has the potential to save millions of lives, especially in the developing world.

The head of the World Health Organization, Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, says genome research has the potential to make revolutionary improvements in health care around the world. One of its most promising benefits, she says, is that it could allow developing countries to give their citizens greatly improved care.

WHO says the report, called Genomics and World Health, is based on research carried out over 12 months by a group of internationally prominent doctors, medical researchers and ethicists in developed and developing countries. It is the first report ever to put gene research into a global perspective.

The report examines how genetic research could be used to combat infectious diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS, all of which are responsible for many deaths in the developing world. Genetic research is also considered invaluable in the fight against heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

Professor Maxime Schwartz of the Institut Pasteur in Paris says the quickest medical breakthrough will probably be in the field of infectious diseases. He says genetic research in that area is already very well advanced. "It is hoped that knowledge of all the genes of the most common pathogens might lead to new avenues to finding new products, new drugs to treating infectious diseases, for instance," says Dr. Schwartz. "It would be important to know which are the genes which make some people more than others more resistant to infectious diseases, and maybe this can also give clues how to treat these infectious diseases."

WHO says that two new types of vaccines, based on genetic research, have already been developed to fight tuberculosis. It says clinical trials of one of the vaccines has already begun.

The WHO report also carries the first global examination of the role ethics should play in genetic research. Dr. Schwartz points out some of the challenges posed by the development of large-scale genetic databases. These databases, he says, have information about a person's genetic make-up, information that could, for example, show a person has a predisposition to a certain disease. While it is good for the person to know this, the worry is that a potential employer, for example, may also be able to find out about it. "Once information will become greater and greater on such genes, it is very important that there is a protection of the individual against this information being used either by their employer or by insurance companies or things like that," says Dr. Schwartz.

But scientists say these new advances also pose other ethical problems. For example, they question whether people should be able to use them to select the sex of their child.