Indian scientists map Sri Lankan genetic code

BY S VENKAT NARAYAN Our Special Correspondent

NEW DELHI, October 31: Indian scientists have mapped the genetic code of a Sri Lankan individual, thus proclaiming this country’s arrival in the blooming global industry of commercial human genome sequencing.

The project involved the Centre for Genomic Application, a public-private company floated by the state-owned Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and Kolkata-based Institute of Molecular Medicine, leading business daily "Mint" reported on Saturday.

Three years ago, India became the sixth country in the world to map the genetic code. It was In 2009 that CSIR scientists announced the first Indian whole-genome sequencing. The US, the UK, China, Canada and South Korea are the other five other countries to map the genetic code.

The Sri Lankan genome was mapped in December 2010, but is yet to be formally announced via a scientific publication. The project is championed by the University of Colombo’s Faculty of Medicine, in which CSIR played the pivotal role of crunching and scanning the gigantic swathe of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid).

Sridhar Sivasubbu, a CSIR researcher involved with the Sri Lankan genome-mapping exercise, said that though the mapping project was a commercial deal, it involved Indian scientists "sharing knowledge" with Sri Lankan collaborators.

"It wasn’t a purely commercial transaction," he said. "While several international outfits offer commercial scanning services, we (CSIR) became partners as we were also sharing what we’ve learned about sequencing techniques, analysis, etc."

Genomics is only the latest of the several fields in which India has been boosting scientific ties with Asian neighbours in the last few years. Earlier this year, the India Meteorological Department began issuing monsoon forecasts for Vietnam and Myanmar, and in 2009, prepared a scientific document for Bangladesh to help it stake a claim with the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea, an arbitration body that decides nations’ rights over unallotted ocean beds.

"Both were pro bono exercises," said Shailesh Nayak, secretary, Ministry of Earth Sciences, which coordinated both these initiatives. "If we are in a position to offer these services, we should be taking a lead in sharing scientific data."

According to analysts, sequencing the human genome is currently a $250 billion (around INR 12 trillion) market, and has mushroomed into an international biological race in the last five years, with most countries vying to bring down the cost of sequencing the human genome.

Mapping genomes will help medical experts prepare a diagnostic map of various genes that could predispose individuals to certain diseases and their tolerance to various kinds of treatments.

For instance, Acton Biotech (India) Pvt. Ltd, a Pune-based biotechnology start-up, said in February that it will offer commercial genome scanning services at "INR 20,000 a test". A blood test and a month’s analysis will let people know, according to the company’s chief executive, their propensity to a range of nearly 100 diseases and disorders, including diabetes, asthma, hypertension, arthritis, obesity and even infertility.

"All of these diseases have a strong hereditary component," said Sandeep Saxena, founder and CEO of Acton Biotech. "What we’re offering is probability estimates of acquiring a disease within a certain number of years. Several conditions may be hereditary, but can be managed if we discover them early and take adequate precautions."

The genome—as the bases, DNA and other hereditary molecules are collectively referred to—consists of around 35,000 known genes. If all the DNA from every cell in the body were taken out and laid out end to end, it would stretch from the earth to the sun 70 times and back.

Sequencing the entire genome essentially means photographing this chain of base pairs several times over to accurately estimate an individual’s unique structure. Doing this quickly requires massive computing power as well as skilled biotechnologists, which puts the cost of a complete sequencing and requisite analysis at nearly $15,000-20,000.

"The global push is in trying to bring this cost down to about $1,000 in the next few years that would then make it competitive enough for the medical diagnostics market," said Devashish Ohri, managing director of Life Technologies, South Asia.

He said that India is now a $25 million market for genome sequencing applications and has about one-fourth of the next-generation sequencing machines—mostly developed by American and European companies and the backbone of whole genome sequencing—that China has.

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