- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 30, 2002

HAVANA Doctors, lawyers and teachers at a U.N. conference here this week vowed to help poor nations benefit from the advances in human genetic research done in the United States and other developed countries.
The conference on the human-genome project the mapping of the human genetic makeup which is expected to help find cures for many diseases was organized by the U.N. World Health Organization (WHO).
"We often hear about the 'digital divide' how 95 percent of Internet productivity is in the hands of the developed world. WHO is committed to avoiding a 'genome divide,'" said Dr. Tikki Pang, the Geneva-based U.N. agency's director of research policy and cooperation.
In June 2000, researchers announced that they had developed a first draft of the human genome. The news was met with much media attention and speculation about where that research would lead. Proponents of the project promised that the work would produce medical breakthroughs. Detractors warned of the potential for its misuse in human cloning and genetic engineering.
Researchers have yet to identify all the approximately 30,000 genes in human DNA and what medical advances that information will hold. Still, genes associated with more than 30 disorders have been pinpointed. Further research could lead to cures for cancer, prevention of developmental abnormalities and other maladies.
This week's conference brought together ethicists, lawyers, and medical researchers from among the WHO's 191 member countries in advance of a report on the issue, "Genomics and World Health," due for release at the end of next month.
"If [public education in genomics] is not achieved," the report warns, "it will be impossible for society to enter into informed debate about the ethical issues involved, and there is a danger that those who administer health services will be unable to distinguish between hyperbole and reality in a new and rapidly expanding research field."
Dr. Pang, an Indonesian physician, said the speed and scope of human-genome research need not be a source of public apprehension if the work is done in an ethical way and for the benefit of all.
"Eighty percent of the research that went into mapping the human genome occurred in the United States," Dr. Pang said. "That is to their credit, but who would suggest that the West should receive all the benefits?"
Andrew Pleasant, 31, a Cornell University instructor, said Havana is an appropriate venue for the conference since Cuba's high literacy rate, over 98 percent, underpins Central America's strongest public health care system.
"There is a long-established correlation between a nation's literacy rate and the health of its people," Mr. Pleasant said. "Modest improvements in education can bring great advances in general wellness."
Dr. Pang said he fears the developing world could face difficulties in receiving the benefits of the genome research similar to the problems in procuring AIDS-treatment drugs. Western pharmaceutical companies that developed and patented AIDS drugs have been criticized for not making them more affordable for underdeveloped nations.


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