BIOTECH FIRM BUYS TONGA'S GENE POOL
By VANESSA WILLIAMS in Melbourne.
AN AUSTRALIAN biotech company headed by Melbourne Football Club
president Joseph Gutnick has secured exclusive rights to the entire
gene pool of the people of Tonga. Autogen Limited will use the
genetically unique DNA of Tongans in its hunt for drugs to treat
diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, cancers and ulcers.
The research, based on finding links between diseases and particular
genes, could make the company hundreds of millions of dollars if it
led to drugs being commercialised.
The collaboration is the second of its kind in the world, following
the licensing of the genes of Iceland's population to an
international consortium including German pharmaceutical company
Autogen is also negotiating the same deal with other Pacific nations
in a move that could make it the only company allowed to perform
genetic studies on the entire Polynesian race.
But it is claimed the Tongans, who number 110,000, have not been told
of the deal which was signed last week. Mr Gutnick is Autogen's
chairman and managing director.The company's director of research and
development, Professor Greg Collier, said yesterday the deal would
bring jobs and a better-funded health system to Tongans.
A research laboratory on Tonga's main island would be built next to
the country's only hospital, which was government-owned. Patients at
the hospital would be requested to donate blood to Autogen, Professor
The blood would be used to extract DNA from which to form genetic
pedigrees of family members in the hunt for disease-causing genes.
Professor Collier denied the company was practising "bio-piracy" and
said that it had followed ethical guidelines set down by the World
Health Organisation."The Tongan Government will get royalties if
anything comes of it, there will be more jobs and the population will
get any drugs that come of the research for free," he said.
Patients would be asked for their full, informed consent before
samples were taken.
Autogen will begin collecting DNA samples from Tonga late this year
or early 2001. The DNA of Tonga and other Polynesian nations are
valuable to biotech companies because they are more genetically
isolated than other populations, where families are made up of people
of different ethnic backgrounds. "Tonga has a lot of history in their family groupings; they know who is related to whom," Professor Collier said. But like most
Polynesians, as they became more exposed to the Western culture and
diet, Tongans began to die of Western diseases.