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Genetic study focuses on Asians

Scientists launch an unprecented study on the genetic similarities and differences among Asian ethnic groups.
Thousands of well-wishers flood the streets of Singapore during a Lunar New Year celebration.
Thousands of well-wishers flood the streets of Singapore during a Lunar New Year celebration.Singapore Tourist Board

Just how similar are the Japanese and Indonesians, apart from being Asians?

Although their physical appearences highlight a range of differences, their genetic makeup could reveal more similarities than their looks suggest, scientists said Friday at the launch of an unprecedented study on the genetic profile of Asians.

The scientists, from a range of research institutes across the region, said the study could reveal Asia’s migratory patterns and explain the susceptibility of different Asian societies to illnesses such as childhood leukaemia and diabetes.

“If you look from Korea to Indonesia and India to Japan, you find huge human variations yet to be understood,” said Edison Liu, executive director of the Genome Institute of Singapore. “We don’t have enough understanding of how different we are or how similar we are. And this initiative is to identify that and to refine future studies.”

What factors make Asians different?
Scientists said the latest initiative will improve the findings of the Human Genome Project, a 13-year project completed last year, which first sequenced the complete human genome and found human DNA to be 99.9 percent identical, with the 0.1 percent variation accounting for all the differences between individuals.

“Although we know that the difference in our genetic makeup is only 0.1 percent, we know very little about the genetic factors that make us different,” said Liu.

The Asian genome study, a project spanning populations in seventeen Asian countries, will also allow scientists to compare genetic maps and find out if people prone to certain illness have a common characteristic in their DNA set.

A roadmap for the genome
“By looking at our genetic differences, it gives us a roadmap of where to examine in the genome, when we have a disease which we want to study,” said Liu, who is one of the scientists speaking at the Human Genome Organization Asia-Pacific conference in Singapore.

Genetic mapping, widely seen as a major scientific milestone, has gained prominence in the medical field in the last few years as researchers uncover genetic links to various illnesses.

Findings so far have led drug manufacturers to look into personalized medicine, a new therapy that matches drugs to patient’s genetic makeup, and customize treatments for various diseases.

“What we believe is that the differences between human beings provide a basis on how they have a disease and how they respond to therapies,” Liu said.