There are two possible strategies for eradicating diseases of poverty: either develop treatments and specific preventive measures, or abolish poverty. History has taught us that the former rarely works in the absence of progress with the latter. Undertaking science and technology in the developing world provides the only route to achieving both aims simultaneously. It is in this respect that the article by Broder, Hoffman and Hotez most dramatically misses the point of the opportunity offered by genomics to alleviate suffering in impoverished societies.
The authors are quite right to suggest that genomic science will have the greatest impact in developing countries, especially in relation to tropical diseases. But they are quite wrong to suggest that this technology can only be transferred downwards from well‐meaning laboratories in the developed world. Advanced societies are not the sole preserve of scientific talent, and the greatest obstacle to cutting‐edge research in developing countries is certainly not the geographical distribution of human intelligence. Nor is it necessarily the lack of investment. Rather, the problems are the availability of reagents and equipment, the time needed to obtain these necessary items and the complexity of local importation barriers and controls. Thus, efforts by developing countries to compete in hypothesis‐based research are almost always doomed to failure. It is very hard to have an idea that has not occurred to someone else: if two scientists—one in New York and one in Papua New Guinea—simultaneously have the same insight, the American will almost always be the first to patent and publish the results due to logistical advantages.
Genomics, however, is not hypothesis‐based science, but one that leads to hypothesis generation. It also avoids the traditional logistical constraints of biomedical research: most of the data are generated by genome sequencing, a very straightforward and repetitive process where the reagents and equipment required can be predicted 6 months in advance. Even more importantly, the computational extraction of the biological value of these data—on which patents for novel drugs and vaccines are based—entirely sidesteps the major predicaments of Third World science. Indeed, bioinformatics and the internet represent a major democratizing force since the only tools required are intelligence and a personal computer. In this particular race for novel findings, I would probably back the scientist in Papua New Guinea rather than the one in New York. Clearly, functional genomics requires more infrastructure and takes time and effort to establish. Even so, basic DNA sequencing and comparative genomics will remain a strong discovery paradigm for at least a generation (Simpson, 2002), and can currently be undertaken within the relative sanctuary of prior discovery and provisional patents.
We have had the privilege of participating in this optimistic scenario. In collaboration with the state of São Paulo science foundation FAPESP, we led the consortium of laboratories that generated the first complete genome sequence and annotation of a bacterial plant pathogen, Xylella fastidiosa. This work was undertaken entirely within Brazil and took a little over 2 years between the importation of the first automated sequencers and submission of our manuscript (Simpson et al., 2000). A network was developed that required no investment in construction or administration, and the scientific talent was already in place at local universities and institutes (Simpson, 2001).
This project has had a dramatic impact on science in Brazil (WHO, 2002). As a direct consequence of our initial genome sequencing efforts, a functional genomics programme is now defining the disease caused by Xylella in citrus orchards. A significant percentage of the funding for this programme has come from the citrus industry itself, setting an important precedent. The US Department of Agriculture, together with the American Vineyard Foundation, has invited the group to sequence the genome of an X. fastidiosa isolate, that causes Pierce's Disease in grapevines. Among other genome projects, the same scientific teams in Brazil are now the single largest contributors to human expressed gene sequences currently available in the public databases and are major contributors to the annotation of the human genome (Camargo et al., 2001; de Souza et al., 2000).
Science is important for developing countries as it is a fulcrum for eradicating disease and creating wealth. The scientific process enhances traditional industries, and can form the basis of new companies that utilize local talent to solve both local and international problems. Ironically, I believe that the inclusion of scientists from developing countries is also crucial for researching health problems of wealthy nations. Our lack of progress with complex diseases such as cancer renders all contributions welcome and a huge wealth of talent around the world remains shockingly under‐utilised. Genomics is a major route to this end. Thus, funding agencies and philanthropic groups would certainly increase their lasting legacy in improving the lot of the poor by investing directly in their science rather than by relying on scientists in the developed world.
- Copyright © 2002 European Molecular Biology Organization