Bringing Cutting-Edge Genomic Applications to MexicoWed, 09/09/2015 - 12:29
Q: What has been your role in the sequencing of the human genome in Mexico?
A: I was responsible for producing the first medical analysis of the Human Genome Project (HGP), which was published along with the first draft of the HGP in Nature in 2001. The whole genomic sequence was completed later in April 2003. This deepened my knowledge of the impact genomics has on medicine, which is the first step to developing key public health solutions. In 2001, following discussions with Professor Guillermo Soberón, then Executive President for the Mexican Health Foundation (FUNSALUD), about the implications of the HGP in Mexican healthcare, an alliance was established with the Ministry of Health, CONACYT, UNAM, and the private sector through FUNSALUD, with the aim of evaluating the feasibility of developing a national strategy for genomic medicine in Mexico. The study defined key participants, the appropriate legal structure, and the funding sources. The Secretary of Health, under the leadership of Julio Frenk, proposed the creation of the National Institute of Genomic Medicine (INMEGEN) in 2002, and it was finally founded as the 13th National Institute of Health in Mexico in 2004. We brought Mexican human resources from abroad and acquired all the necessary infrastructure and technology.
Q: How has the sequencing progressed?
A: One of the most important achievements of INMEGEN so far has been sequencing the Mexican Genome Diversity Project. We visited large cities and rural communities in Mexico to collect DNA samples. One of the biggest challenges was creating understanding in ethnic groups about the value of their participation in the project, thus we conducted community engagement processes in their own language. The Mexican genome project was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2009. A number of genomic medicine initiatives have used this information to further conduct anthropologic and medical lines of research in this area.
Q: What inspired your venture into the private sector with GBC Group?
A: In 2006, I was elected President of the OECD Working Party in Biotechnology. This area is focused on translating science into economic wealth and our work included a broad variety of applications, such as healthcare, food, environmental management, and oceans preservation, among others. After I finished my term at INMEGEN, we established GBC Group, a biotechnology consulting group that develops solutions for business challenges in different areas including healthcare and food science. Later, we established a second company, Genómica Médica focused on making DNA technologies available to local communities and utilizing genomic tools to produce innovative methods for DNA extraction. We had designed projects for our customers, but found that many were difficult to carry out due to lack of knowledge, infrastructure, and specific details that required technical skills or technology which is currently unavailable in Mexico. That was a main driver leading to the foundation of Genómica Médica, which now implements projects for our customers through our genomics laboratory established in Mexico City. Later in 2012 we established “Genómica y Bioeconomía” a nonprofit organization, whose strategic liaisons consist of bringing together the government, scientists, and CEOs in order to push forward genomics innovation in Mexico.
Q: What does a greater understanding of genomics really represent for the global economy in the years ahead, and what role can Mexico play?
A: In 2009, the OECD published the report called Bioeconomy 2030 on the role that genomics will play in the global economy in the next decades. This report shows very clear trends that indicate genomics will be a major contributor to the economy by 2030. In November 2013, we held the International Forum on Genomic Innovation and Economic Growth, which focused on how to translate genomic innovation into wealth and wellbeing. The Forum was attended by the Secretary General of the OECD, José Angel Gurría, as well as experts around the world on areas such as biotechnology and innovation. At the same time President Obama announced that the Human Genome Project saw a return of US$141 per dollar invested, meaning that the total return has been about US$1 trillion. As for Mexico, innovation generally takes longer than in more developed countries, mainly because of the lack of incentives and infrastructure, with a heavy regulatory burden. As genomics innovation translates into better medicines, prevention strategies and quality of life, smart investments can have a huge impact. Canada champions in health, food, and environmental applications of biotechnology, while the US champions in healthcare applications, and the UK is making forwardlooking policies to develop genomic innovation responsibly. I want to see Mexico championing in translating science for emerging economies.
Q: What have been the Mexican Genome Diversity Project’s most important discoveries and how has Genómica Médica translated them into commercial applications?
A: The aim of this project was to analyze the genetic components of Mexican mestizo and other ethnic groups. We know that there are several genetic differences among African, European, and Asian populations, so we wanted to find genetic commonalities. The results showed that despite the fact that Mexicans share 99.9% of their genetic sequences with the rest of the world, there are a number of genetic variants that are more prevalent in the Mexican populations and some variants are involved in the way an individual would respond to a medical treatment. Thus by identifying a collection of those variants present in the Mexican population, we translated that knowledge into genetics tests to prevent adverse reactions to commonly used drugs. We have implemented DNA tests that can help clinicians avoid prescribing a drug that will damage an individual’s health, calculate personalized doses based on that individual’s genetic makeup, or provide recommendations for alternative medications that will best treat a given patient. The number of genetic tests available is increasing and we are one of the first Mexican companies to offer those services to the public.
Q: What particular DNA tests have you developed based on such findings?
A: This project sheds some light on other diseases and genetic variants as well, and we have developed six different molecular diagnostics for pharmacogenomics testing that are the first genomic tests for public health in Mexico. These tests reveal the optimal dose of a specific drug as well as its maximum recommended dose for an individual. We examined the 140 drugs for which the FDA has authorized pharmacogenomics tests and then we selected those medications of most relevance to our healthcare sector. For instance, simvastatin is used all over the world for treating high cholesterol. Some people have a risk for muscular damage when they take simvastatin and the FDA defines the risk as low, medium, or high. At Genómica Médica, we can read the genetic variants involved in metabolizing simvastatin in a patient’s saliva sample. Based on the results we can provide the recommended dose for the drug based on the genetic variant using international therapeutic guidelines. This represents a complete paradigm shift in medicine.
Q: How accessible are these sorts of services to those covered by the public sector?
A: This sort of service can translate science into major public health benefits, although as of yet we have only launched these tests for the private sector. The cost of service in Mexico is much lower than in the US, at just a fraction of the price. However, we must bear in mind the different healthcare systems, as in many cases this service is covered by health insurance companies in the US, and by public systems in Europe. As well as financing, education is needed so that people become aware of the technological innovations for healthcare.
Q: What are the main barriers to the commercialization of research in Mexico?
A: Scientists often believe that research should not be commercialized since many are not accustomed to thinking as entrepreneurs, and they do not see science as a means for creating wealth. In contrast, in other countries, it would be imprudent for governments to invest money in science without thinking about the return. Basic science is important, but so is financing sources and budget allocation for scientific innovation. Scientists in Mexico could be taught how to apply science to solve problems with major economic impacts. Innovation is at the core of knowledge economy, and new developments can take from five to 20 years to generate profits, as well as requiring significant levels of investment.
Q: To what extent are you working with the academic sector to tackle this problem?
A: We became aware that universities wanted to translate knowledge into applications, but that there was no place they could send their samples for DNA extraction and analysis in Mexico. For this reason, we established a laboratory to receive biological samples for DNA extraction, and there we carry out DNA amplification, sequencing, and final analysis. DNA is traditionally obtained from blood samples, but there are several benefits to using saliva since it does not require syringes, refrigeration, specialized personnel, or sophisticated infrastructure. We have become the exclusive distributor of certain Canadian-manufactured kits for DNA extraction from saliva, designed to extract DNA and RNA from humans and other species. Furthermore, we are developing an innovative solution in which filter paper is used for collecting blood or saliva for DNA extraction. The sample can be sent at room temperature to our laboratory where we can extract DNA from it, a process that can potentially be used to bring genomics to rural communities in Mexico. I believe that Mexico has enormous potential for innovation and growth.