Genomes going global

14 March 2017

Interview with 

Ewan Birney, European Bioinformatics Institute and Global Alliance for Genomics and Health

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With more than a billion people living in India, not to mention the diaspora around the world, this kind of joined-up global genetic effort is only going to get more important in the future. And as Kat Arney discovered, the potential benefits are huge, according to Ewan Birney, director of the European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge and chair of the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health.

Ewan - Well, it’s really exciting. One of the reasons why is because it’s become remarkably cheaper to sequence DNA and we can now use that in healthcare. Previously, we only did it for a few people in a research context. Now, people can be sequenced because they're suspected of a particular genetic disease. But what that also means is we’ve got to realise all the research benefits. We have to be able to share that data between our healthcare systems. Not just between researchers but between people in different countries with different healthcare, rules and systems. That’s where the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health really comes in. What the Global Alliance aims to do is set up web protocols like the internet for genomic data sharing, but responsible genomic data sharing where the data will usually reside inside of the country of residence under the legal protections in each country.

Kat - Are there issues with things like formatting? I mean, those of us will remember the problems with, “Oh, that’s on a Mac, that’s on a PC…oh, I can't transfer these files.” Are there those same problems there with DNA?

Ewan - There are. Those are problems which really are just about engineering and removing. They do get in the way but that’s not the big problem. The bigger problem is having systems that work at the scale – this is petabyte, exabyte scale – so this is a physical scale of data problem. But there's also the interactions with the legal models present in every different country. Every country respects – in my experience – the value of research and the importance of sharing to create a better research on human health and they're positive about that. But when you're talking about whole populations, all of Denmark, all of the UK, all of France, you have to take a responsible attitude towards data sharing between these and researchers will have to adapt to a system which still allows research but in a responsible way of moving their code to the data sites rather than sharing data.

Kat - Ewan Birney from the European Bioinformatics Institute.

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