My Dear HUGO Colleagues,
In 2007, the HUGO Council honored me by selecting me as your President-elect. Since then, our Council and I have sought to enhance the strength of HUGO, to embark on initiatives that will move HUGO into new intellectual territory – conceptual domains that will place HUGO again at the forefront of this new convergence of genomic sciences, medicine, and social policy.
As I thought about HUGO in relation to the recent developments in genomics, I was left with two profound impressions. First, is that HUGO represents an international force with an important role to play especially with the rise of scientific capabilities in the emerging and developing countries in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa. Second, that there is a need for a global organization to help guide all societies in the mature applications of genomics in medicine and public policy. The time for Genome Medicine has arrived and the need for HUGO has never been greater.
So it is in these two areas in which HUGO will need to focus in the present and into the future: Greater engagement with the emerging scientific countries, and the expansion of Genomic Medicine.
Science and Genomics in the Emerging and Developing countries:
In the last twenty years, we all have observed a dramatic change in the global economic and scientific landscape. The emerging economies of India, China, South Africa, South America, Eastern Europe and the Middle East have risen in economic clout and are putting these resources into nurturing scientific talent and in building biomedical research infrastructures. Many governments have the desire to exploit genomic technologies for public health benefits, for capacity building in biomedical investigations, in environmental remediation, and in agricultural advancement. In many ways, this is strategically very smart.
Modularly deployed and cost effective, high throughput sequencing/genotyping approaches can be readily established, and informatics capabilities are accessible and expandable. The monitoring and control of infectious diseases and the exploration of human variations in response to these diseases are advantages derived from these capabilities. The technologies can easily be directed to other non-medical applications such as in agricultural development, in animal-live stock management, and in environmental remediation. So, genomic approaches are effective ways to achieve competitiveness and impact in biology and medicine over a short period of time.
These emerging and newly developed nations cover over 3 billion of our 6 billion human inhabitants on this earth and the new talent that can be harnessed to solve medical and environmental problems is immense. Equally important is that these countries have strong national memories of the struggles of being poor developing nations. These experiences, if codified, can be used to help our brethren in developing countries with little scientific resources.
I believe that HUGO can be an important platform for these emerging countries to be engaged in global science and scientific policy. Often considered the UN of genomic sciences, we are often viewed as an unbiased convener of experts around troublesome issues - as we have in the past in nomenclature and in bioethics. We can be the trusted third party in global negotiations, and the wellspring of expert opinion beholding to no single region or government.
We are at an inflection point of discovery in human genetics. The confluence of knowledge of the human genome sequence, the breath-taking advances in genomic technologies, comparable increases in computational capabilities, and a maturing knowledge base in systems biology are all making genome-based medicine a reality. The challenges are to creative study design to uncover genetic complexity, to understand how to make clinical decisions based on this complex genetic information, and to safely and ethically use the complete genetic information about any individual or groups of individuals in public health policy.
All this is new scientific, medical, and social territory. Whereas the developed nations led these discussions for the last 40 years, the emerging economies are now asking how they can integrate this high technology into the fabric of medical care. Global research organizations like the Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust are exploring how these genomic technologies can solve serious public health problems in poorer developing countries.
As we bring in the rest of the world into the discussion, HUGO can be an important broker of ideas and strategies. Our global reach of scientific connectivity can be exploited to help humanity.
What we need to do.
For HUGO to be this dynamic visionary organization, we will need fundamental changes to how we conduct business.
First and foremost, we must be financially strong, and organizationally aligned. HUGO was established in 1991 as an organization incorporated in Switzerland, but functioning in three autonomous business offices in the US, UK, and Japan. In a fast moving world, this kind of organizational structure is ponderous and prone to disorganization. The continuous separation of the business office from the council leadership, has made governance very difficult. For this reason, we have consolidated HUGO functions and established and efficient office in Singapore reflecting our more global presence.
The second action is for us to enhance our membership and to encourage new members to join. For this to happen, again, we have reformed the HUGO charter to make our organization an inclusive society. We also have explored the concept of institutional membership to engage both corporate and governmental institutional sponsorship. To encourage member communication, we have revamped our website to enhance interactivity, and have embarked on new approaches in social networking to reach young scientists internationally.
The third is that we have increased our activity and visibility through an expansion of workshops and symposia around more specific topics in addition to our successful yearly HGM conferences. So topics such as advanced sequencing technologies, statistical genetics, medicine and genomics, privacy and personal genomics, religion and the new genetics, microbial genomics, genetics of host-pathogen interactions, genetic burdens and social costs, cancer genomics, etc. are possible targeting smaller groups.
Fourth is to organize white papers around specific contemporary problems in genomics. To this end, we are embarking on several analytical papers on Genomics and Global Health. We have planned five; Genomics and Infectious Diseases, Genomics and Ethics Law and Society, Genomics and the Bioeconomy (with the OECD), Genomics and Hereditable Disorders, and Genomics and Human Sustainability. Organizing and publishing these monographs allows HUGO to play a significant role in global science policy.
Fifth, we have started The HUGO Journal in collaboration with Springer Publishing. This journal will seek to integrate medicine, genomics, and policy.
Sixth, we have successfully launched HUGO initiated consortia like the Pan Asian SNP Consortium which has just published its first paper in Science on the genetic diversity of Asian populations.
As we move forward, I am very excited about engaging all members of HUGO and to embrace new colleagues.
Edison Liu, M.D.
President and CEO
The Jackson Laboratory
President, Human Genome Organization