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China begins huge gene bank

23rd October 2007

China is in the process of building a genetic databank of material from up to five million people.

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Based around the eastern coastal city of Taizhou, in Jiangsu province, volunteers are already going around ordinary people collecting saliva samples to add to the existing genetic information on 10,000 Taizhou residents.

Project organisers say the databank could become the largest in the world, although they recognise that five million is only 0.04% of the country's 1.3 billion population.

Chinese Medical City (CMC), headed by the city's deputy mayor, is the company which is funding the 15 million yuan (£1 million) project.

It has contracted out the work to Berkeley Biotech, a wholly foreign-owned Chinese-registered company. Some investment has also been secured from US sources.

CMC hopes ambitious plans and heavy investment will transform Taizhou, which currently has little else to make it stand out from the crowd, other than its population of five million, whose home is 170 km north of Shanghai, into the thriving hub of China's future medical industry.

One of the partners on the project is Shanghai's prestigious Fudan University, which recently held talks with Iceland's president, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, whose country is a leader in genetic databanking.

Iceland's project deCODE has successfully collected samples from 110,000 people since 1998, more than half the island's adult population. This is a valuable resource on an isolated, island population, which can be set alongside meticulous medical record-keeping over several generations.

The goal is to form a picture of how traits and diseases are inherited. The Chinese project will not have the benefit of a small, isolated population to study.

Alan Bittles, director of Australia's Centre for Human Genetics, who has been involved in several human genome studies in China said that the country's ethnic minority groups were officially recognised by the ruling Communist Party on political, rather than ethnological grounds.

But Wang Wei, dean of the School of Public Health and Family Medicine at Beijing's Capital Medical University, said the facilities would put Chinese scientists in a good position to collaborate with their colleagues overseas. The databank could also be used to screen large numbers of people for genetic variations linked to various forms of disease, especially cancers.

Pharmaceutical companies keen to take advantage of China's rapidly expanding healthcare market might be able to use the database to tailor drugs to suit Chinese consumers.

Genetic testing provides "personalised" medicine or the ability to predict a response to a drug, either positive or negative, depending on genetic background, experts say.

 

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