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Could the people of Ireland hold the genetic codes to tackle serious diseases?

Amy Schofield 17 March 2017

Researchers at Genomics Medicine Ireland (GMI), in partnership with AbbVie, are to map the genomes of 45,000 people across Ireland in an effort to unlock the genetic key to solving some of the world’s most complex diseases.

Scientists are building a library of genetic information where they will look for genes that might play a role in disease origins and progression. The hope is to make discoveries that will lead to new medicines for people battling serious diseases.

Dr Sean Ennis, Ph.D., co-founder of GMI, who has spent his entire career researching medical genetics, explained why Ireland was chosen a good population from which to gather genomic data.

"Although the population of the island of Ireland is only about 6.6 million, there are said to be more than 80 million of us Irish across the globe who make up the Irish diaspora," he said. "Apart from a very short period recently, there has largely been net migration out of Ireland for many centuries, so in that sense we are representative of global populations."

He explained that Irish people are more alike than other Western populations, which in genetics terms increases the likelihood of making discoveries, particularly in complex diseases. Secondly, as Ireland is a small island, "but not too small", it holds significant numbers of patients for many medical conditions to conduct studies.

Participation in the studies is also made simpler thanks to the concentrated clinical infrastructure and close collaborations between universities and hospitals in Ireland.

"The reason we are taking a population genomics approach is that we believe Ireland is in a unique position to build a world-class genomic database of a disease-specific population," he added. "The idea is that we could make a significant contribution to powering precision medicine research, and further down the line contribute to preventative medicine and care."

The research collaboration with AbbVie has a 15-year timeframe, with Dr Ennis hoping to sequence participant data within the next three to four years. Eligible participants will be referred to the study via their clinician at which point they will be fully informed about the study parameters and they can elect whether or not to volunteer. Participation involves a blood sample being taken and answering a short lifestyle questionnaire.

"We are aiming to publish early insights in a one to two year timeframe," Dr Ennis added.

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