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East London genome project to focus on south Asian population

16 March 2015
Appeared in BioNews 794

Scientists plan to study the genetics of 100,000 people living in East London to try and uncover why south Asian people are more vulnerable to certain health problems.

The project, which claims to be the largest community genetics study in the world, will be recruiting volunteers of Bangladeshi and Pakistani origin from several East London boroughs.

The East London boroughs of Newham and Tower Hamlets have large south Asian populations and the lowest life expectancy of all London boroughs. The risk of heart disease is twice as high among south Asian people compared with the overall population and south Asian people are also five times more likely to have type 2 diabetes.

Study co-leader Professor David van Heel from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) said: 'Not only do south Asian people have some of the highest rates of poor health in the UK, they are also markedly under-represented in medical research and therefore not likely to benefit from the advances in genetics which are shaping the future of medicine. We aim to change this and we need local support to make it happen.'

Over the next four years, volunteers will be asked to provide a saliva sample for genetic analysis. They will also have to give consent for their anonymised GP records to be linked to their genetic data and around 1,000 people per year will be invited to take part in follow-up test such as blood tests or MRI scans. The project is planned to run until 2034.

The research team plans to study several health factors related to genetics including drug response, diabetes, heart disease and genetic variation within adult Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities.

One area of particular focus is to look for so-called 'knock-out genes'. This is when a person has inherited two copies of a gene that function differently from the norm, meaning the normal function of that gene is completely 'knocked-out'. These types of genes are more common in Pakistani and Bangladeshi people because of the higher rates of marriage between close relations.

While they have generally been considered harmful, knock-out genes may also explain why some people have remarkable resistance to developing some medical conditions, which could lead the way to new drug treatments.

Professor Richard Trembath, vice-principal for health at QMUL, commented: 'This is the first time a large-scale genetics study has focused on two distinct ethnic minority groups, with high levels of health concerns in the community and the potential for significant genetic variation. 

'Not only do we believe these findings will play a key role in tackling health inequality locally and in the UK, we hope to reveal crucial information about the link between genetics and common diseases which will have significant international impact on healthcare.'

SOURCES & REFERENCES
East London genome project recruiting 100,000 volunteers
Wired |  13 March 2015
East London genome project to track down beneficial genes
The Guardian |  13 March 2015
East London study to explore high disease rates in south Asians
Science |  12 March 2015
Genetics study seeks South Asian health clues in East London
Reuters |  13 March 2015
World’s largest community genetics study launches in East London
Queen Mary University of London (press release) |  13 March 2015
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