Genetic research is shaping up as a powerful research tool to improve Indigenous health, but progress could be hampered unless Australia develops guidelines on the ethical conduct of such research, according to an article published in the 2 July issue of the Medical Journal of Australia.
Dr Emma Kowal, a senior researcher from the University of Melbourne’s School of Social and Political Sciences, said genomics had been a controversial issue in Indigenous health across the globe. Genetics had the potential to reinforce old stereotypes, portraying indigenous health problems as “biologically foretold, rather than a complex interaction of genes and environment,” she wrote. Given these concerns, it was understandable there had been little genetic research in Indigenous Australia.
However, the situation had changed significantly in the past 2 years, with the National Health and Medical Research Council funding four Indigenous genetic research projects. More projects would follow if there were guidelines to ensure the ethical collection, use and long-term storage of biospecimens such as blood and DNA samples, following Canada, which had developed such guidelines for research in First Nations communities, she wrote.
“There is a clear need for similar guidelines in Australia, so that both Indigenous communities and researchers have a starting point from which to negotiate these issues”, Dr Kowal wrote. “Without clear guidelines, declining to participate in genetic research may be the only ‘safe’ option for Aboriginal ethics committees and local community representatives.”
According to Dr Kowal, a recent genetic research project that explored genetic associations with metabolic disease in a remote Aboriginal community in Western Australia showed that genetic research can be conducted in a way that addresses community concerns. “However, this project took many years to develop. Clear guidelines could speed up this process and unlock the potential for genetics to contribute to solving Indigenous health problems.” Dr Kowal said.
Other current genetic research projects that could benefit Indigenous communities included the study of possible genetic associations with vulval cancer, which occurred among women in Arnhem Land at 70 times the national rate, and studies on genetic links with rheumatic heart disease and with renal disease in remote communities in the Northern Territory.
Source: The Medical Journal of Australia