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Australian Indigenous HealthBulletin Alcohol and other drugs knowledge centre Yarning Places

Genetics 'could improve' Indigenous health

Date posted: 4 July 2012

Researchers are hoping to solve more Indigenous health problems by overcoming barriers to genetic research in Aboriginal communities.

It comes as the first research in almost a decade investigating genetic causes of disease in Aboriginal people is set to be released, after widespread opposition to the practice stymied research projects for years.

Melbourne University anthropologist Emma Kowal said research into genetic associations between diabetes and middle-ear infections would shortly be published, while studies into heart disease, kidney disease and vulval cancer started in the past two years.

Dr Kowal, writing in the Medical journal of Australia on Monday, said ethical concerns around indigenous genetic research internationally - such as its potential to inadvertently reinforce racial stereotypes - had contributed to Australian projects losing or being rejected funding.

'What we've seen in the past couple of years is that tide of opinion start to reverse,' Dr Kowal told AAP.

Dr Kowal, from the university's School of Social and Political Sciences, said Australian guidelines needed to be developed for ethical genetic research in Indigenous communities.

Similar guidelines had been developed in Canada, including specific guidance on how biospecimens should be collected, stored and used, Dr Kowal said.

Guidelines should also include how to effectively communicate genetic concepts to Aboriginal communities.

Australia's national research body for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health, the Lowitja Institute, hosted discussions between the research and Indigenous communities in the past two years.

As a result, a team of Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers and geneticists formed a group to develop the Australian guidelines.

Dr Kowal said the guidelines could see research projects get underway quicker.

'We may see more research, we may see less,' Dr Kowal said.

'But we definitely will see Indigenous communities better equipped to engage with genetic researchers and to decide whether they want to pursue genetic research projects.'

Dr Kowal said gene studies could help unlock reasons behind higher rates of some diseases in Aboriginal people.

One such project is investigating vulval cancer, related to the cervical cancer-causing human papilloma virus (HPV), which is rare in the general population but occurs at 70 times the national rate in Arnhem Land women.

Source: The Australian


Last updated: 4 July 2012
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