The Silent Genomes project: filling in the blanks of Indigenous medical history through DNA research

A UBC program is working to bridge Canada’s gap in medical care for Indigenous communities after receiving $10.4 million in funding to research genome sequencing and help produce more targeted medicine.

The project hopes to build a 'library' of Indigenous DNA to include this population in advancing medicine

The Silent Genome project hopes to build a 'library' of background data on the Indigenous population's DNA to help diagnose and treat patients more effectively through precision medicine. (Pixabay)

A UBC program is working to bridge Canada's gap in medical care for Indigenous communities after receiving $10.4 million in funding to research genome sequencing and help produce more targeted medicine.

Genome Canada Tuesday announced funding for precision medicine projects, which use the technique of genome sequencing to more accurately diagnose and treat patients.

Co-lead by associate professor in UBC's Northern Medical Program, Dr. Nadine Caron, the Silent Genomes project aims to create a database of background genetic variations for Indigenous populations living in Canada and globally.

"We don't have equitable access to either the genomic research that generates these findings and these exciting moves forward in the area of medicine," Caron told On The Coast guest host Laura Lynch.

Building a 'library' of DNA

She said that even if a child from an Indigenous community were to seek specialized genomic treatment, it would be difficult for doctors to diagnose because of the lack of what they call a "library" of Indigenous DNA.

"If it's a child from European descent they would compare it to a European background library, hundreds of people from that background… When it comes to comparing it to someone who's Indigenous, there is no background to compare to because that level of research has never been done," Caron said.

This form of medicine is dismissing the "one size fits all" approach to care, she said, and allows physicians to see beyond traditional methods of testing.

"You can really find details specific to an individual and their scenario to hopefully target the medical care more closely and have better outcomes because of it," she said.

Finding equity

The lack of access to healthcare for Indigenous communities in the past has left a large gap in the history of common conditions experienced by this population, and Caron's project is attempting to work toward finding a level of equity in the system.

Finding a culturally appropriate way to approach the research is top of mind for Caron, who feels it's especially important to involve Aboriginal scholars and physicians to contribute to, and guide, studies.

"How do we do it ethically and get all of that information, because it's never been done before so we have to make sure that… we do it right. The people that have the answers on how we do it correctly are the people who this is for," she said.

To hear the full interview listen to media below:

The Silent Genome project: filling in the blanks of Indigenous medical history through DNA research 8:41

With files from On The Coast