Viet Nam to build largest gene bank in ASEAN region

Saturday, Jan 12, 2019 12:00

Scientific director of the Big Data Institute Professor Vu Ha Van. — VNS Photo Thanh Hai

The Vintech Technology Development Company’s Big Data Institute has announced a US$4.5 million gene decoding project to develop the first large-scale gene bank for Vietnamese people. The institute’s scientific director Prof. Vu Ha Van speaks with Viet Nam News about applications and the practical meaning of the project.

Can you share the purpose and meaning of “Building the Database of Genetic Variations of the Vietnamese”?

Human genes are very similar. Individual determinants depend on certain variations. The world has focused on such variations because they relate to medical problems, diseases and human health. Việt Nam has also done several research projects on variations in a small group of a dozen people.

We want to do research on 1,000 healthy people. The database will play an important role in many later studies relating to Vietnamese characteristics and will help in the study of various diseases and genetic linkages. We hoped it will be possible to find drugs that have special uses for Vietnamese people.

The project has two values. First is the value of scientific research. It will provide a database to study the genetic characteristics of the Vietnamese people in comparison with foreigners. Secondly, its social significance is that we can move on to creating services based on this gene data for medical purposes.

Projects such as this should be supported financially by the Government, and in fact several small-scale projects were done with funding by the State. As far as I know, there is no organisation with the financial or human capacity to do research with on the scale of thousands of samples. Vingroup’s investment in this project, for me, is a good sign for the co-operation between entrepreneurs and the scientific community in creating products that are useful to society.

Which areas of life will the project impact, and when can we expect its research outcomes to serve Vietnamese clients?

For me, the most direct application to society is finding a link between genes, individuals and certain diseases. From that connection scientists can develop drugs or issue warnings about diseases.

The project will consist of three phases. First we must collect samples from 1,000 healthy Vietnamese participants. Then we will decode and analyse the genomes to build a database of genetic variations in the Vietnamese population.

These first two phases will last three years. The last phase relates to certain diseases. At that time, we will need to collect samples of certain diseases. For example for cancer research, we need to take samples from cancer patients to compare their genetic variations with the database of healthy people to find out information that can be used to treat cancer or to warn people who are at high risk of cancer. Each disease may take from six months to 12 months to research with the goal of gaining information that can be applied in real life.

In addition to researching the genetic cause of the disease, we will also carry out studies to identify genomes relevant to drug responses. For example, we could determine if a mutation is related to an adverse reaction to a drug.

In your opinion, where is Viet Nam’s position in the world’s big data research industry?

Honestly, the field of data science in Viet Nam is weak and lacking in two important factors: data sources and data scientists.

How will these weaknesses be handled?

We will co-operate with many hospitals, research institutes and universities in Viet Nam and abroad as well as invite more domestic and foreign experts depending on the demands of each project phase.

Decoding and analysing 1,000 human genomes is a huge amount of work. In addition to spending more than $1 million, about 25 per cent of the project investment, to purchase large computing systems, analytical software and storage systems, we have also prepared in terms of our research team.

We have gathered some young scientists who are energetic and enthusiastic about working at the institute, such as Assoc. Le Duc Hau and Le Thi Ly – promising young talents in bio-informatics.

We are also developing training programmes for researchers in the United States, Germany, Japan and Singapore, and inviting experts from other countries to join the project.

We are also implementing a biomedical human resource training programme for Viet Nam by bringing a number of PhD students to work at Big Data Institute. We hope to support the development of a skilled workforce for research institutes and universities in the country.

Do you have a plan to share data with organisations and businesses in Viet Nam and around the world?

This will be considered according to Vingroup policy. From the scientific point of view and the view of the research team leader, the data needs to be shared completely or partially depending on demand and the research purpose of each organisation, enterprise and project. With this project, sharing Vietnamese genomic data will help develop other genetic studies on Vietnamese people. — VNS

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