First Nations Australians must be given access to the power and potential of genomics and the health benefits it delivers, a leading health researcher from The Australian National University (ANU) says.
Genomics unlocks the information in our DNA to enable personalised and targeted prevention and treatment of a range of health conditions including cancer, diabetes and heart disease, as well as rare diseases among Indigenous children.
Internationally-acclaimed Aboriginal researcher and clinician Professor Alex Brown, who has been named the new director of the ANU National Centre for Indigenous Genomics (NCIG), said genomics offered “a new frontier” for improving health outcomes among Indigenous Australians as well as addressing other major inequities.
“Genomics represents a step change in biomedical science which will be fundamental to the future of research and medical care,” Professor Brown said.
“It drives precision medicine and underpins new diagnostics, therapeutics and treatments. But if we are to ensure direct benefit, and the hope of reducing inequalities, we have to bend it to prevention, prognosis and monitoring as well.
“And we must ‘bend the will’ of genomics to deal with the fundamental drivers of health inequality among Indigenous Australians — including cardiovascular disease and cancer.
“Australia has a national responsibility to place Indigenous people at the centre of these developments as this will ensure genomics fulfils its promise to not only improve health outcomes but does so in a way that is equitable for all.”
Professor Brown said genomics also offered the chance for First Nations people to have greater say and oversight on health research “undertaken in our name and on us for centuries”.
“Science has a painful relationship with indigenous people. In the machine of colonisation, science — often pseudo-science — was used as a vehicle for oppression, marginalisation, and cover for the atrocities carried out against my ancestors,” Professor Brown said.
“But change has arrived. Indigenous people are no longer simply the subjects of research. We must become the architects of our own future in research.
“At ANU we are driving the development of Australia’s national Indigenous genomic data resource under a unique Indigenous governance and research model placing First Nations Australians in charge of their genomic data and its use.
“And we must ensure that science does not ignore all that Indigenous people have to offer, including ethics and ancient wisdom.”
As part of his work at ANU, Professor Brown is leading the National Indigenous Genomics Network, which aims to develop a responsible, culturally appropriate, nationally consistent and internationally relevant Indigenous genomics ecosystem.
Professor Brown said the national network, which consists of six nodes across Australia, will advance the benefits of genomic medicine for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander patients, who have to date been excluded from national genomics efforts.
“Indigenous populations are not appropriately represented in genomic medicine, nor do they have equitable access to its benefits,” Professor Brown said.
“Little attention has been paid to the steps required to ensure Indigenous Australians can and do benefit from all that genomics has to offer.
“NCIG and the growing national network represents this new way forward.”
Professor Brown delivers the inaugural NCIG Summer Oration with Pat Anderson AO, Co-chair of the Voice to Parliament and Chair of the Lowitja Institute, at ANU tonight.
Top image: Professor Alex Brown. Photo: Jamie Kidston/ANU
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