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Article by: Kerry Chatburn

The Future of Genomics in Mexico – an interview with Dr. Gerardo Jimenez-Sanchez


Dr. Gerardo Jimenez Sanchez is a fundamental and prominent figure in the development and expansion of human genomics in Mexico. His accomplishments are equally impressive as they are extensive:

  • Program Director, Genomics and Bioeconomy, Harvard School of Public Health
  • Executive President, Global Biotech Consulting Group
  • Chairman of the Board, Genomica & Bioeconomía
  • Council Member to the Human Genome Organization (HUGO)
  • Chairman of the Committee on Genomics and Bioeconomy at HUGO
  • Member of the Board, Public Population Projects in Genomics, Canada
  • Chairman, Working Party on Biotechnology, OECD (2007-2013)
  • Founding Director, National Institute of Genomic Medicine, Mexico (2004-2009)
  • Council Member in Biotechnology to the United Nations Secretary General (1997-2000).
  • Member of the National Academy of Medicine
  • Founding President, Mexican Society of Genomic Medicine

Recently I had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Jimenez to hear his perspectives concerning the current state of genomics worldwide and the potential Mexico has in becoming a leader in this booming era of biotechnology and genomic discovery. The following is a summary of our conversation.

1. What global trends are you seeing in genomics today? Throughout the world, we are seeing more and more therapeutic examples of how genomic research translates into personalized medicine. Trusted research based on thousands of high quality samples and accurate analysis is essential in providing actionable data for therapeutic applications. Researchers and clinicians alike are looking for simplified biospecimen collection and processing to facilitate large-scale projects and to provide easy collection and rapid clinical results to patients. 

2. What is the current state of genetic research and practice in Mexico? Mexico has a long history in human genetics and is continuing to show a strong future both in genetic research and service. Mexico was one of the early adopters of genomics research and personalized medicine from the latest phases of the Human Genome Project.  Since then, the National Institute of Genomic Medicine (INMEGEN for its name in Spanish), which I served as founding Director from 2004 to 2009, was established in Mexico City in 2004 linking genomic research to national health problems. INMEGEN is now celebrating 10 years of collaborative initiatives we’ve achieved across Mexico and across the world. The Mexican Genome Diversity Project, where I served as principal investigator in 2005/2006, led to publishing the first catalogue of genomic variation in the Mexican population. Based on that, we established a stronger relationship with leader institutes, like the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. This led to further discoveries in diabetes and several cancers in the Mexican population, resulting in a number of scientific articles in leading journals in recent years. As I mentioned, genomic research linked to personalized medicine is becoming more common and is clearly a major area of opportunity and economical growth. Mexico has been sensitive to this potential and in response has implemented a national strategy in human genomics. In addition, non-for-profit organizations have been established including the Mexican Society of Genomic Medicine, as well as, Genomics and Bioeconomy, among others.

3. What challenges do Mexican researchers and clinicians face?  In the area of genomic research in Mexico there is always the challenge to recruit and retain well-trained human resources. There are simply not enough geneticists and other professionals in genomics to fully develop personalized medicine. We also need to expedite training physicians in the area of genomics so they realize the potential and how to apply it into clinical practice. Genomics is useful to all specialties of medicine. You don’t need to be a geneticist to work on genomics; you can use the new tools of genomics that simplify and translate complex data into actionable benefits for your patient. Genomics is relevant to all; not only to physicians, but to lawyers, policy makers, and business people. We have lots to construct quickly in order to have the appropriate infrastructure ready for the full development of genomics in Mexico. Clearly we also require more funding for genomic research, specifically sustained investment. In countries with emerging economies, political will is a crucial factor to accomplish sustained funding for science and so it is imperative that we have leadership well versed in the benefits of genomics.

4. Are there companies and other organizations helping to progress genomics within Mexico?  There are several both created in Mexico and others coming from North America and Europe. For example, Genomica Medica, a Mexican company established in Mexico City, is focused on translating complex scientific challenges into simple solutions at competitive prices.  They are one of the leading providers of genomic products and services. Specifically, they provide the top-notch technology for researchers to easily obtain and manage biospecimens and offer high tech services namely DNA sequencing and genetic testing in pharmacogenomics and cancer genomics. 

5. We’ve been hearing more about the importance in biospecimen quality for research and clinical applications. How important is it?  Extremely important; sample quality is directly associated with the quality and usability of clinical data that comes from it. There are several components to consider in biospecimen collection:

  1. Study design. You must get all the pertinent personal and clinical information from the study subjects, along with the corresponding informed consent forms.
  2. Collect the right specimen. In the case of genomics, this is usually DNA. And for countries like Mexico, it is important to have ways to collect DNA from remote, rural areas where clinical infrastructure is limited or not available. It is difficult to bring a nurse with phlebotomy and cold-chain supplies to remote locations for blood collection and so it is imperative we have appropriate technology to collect without these requirements.  That being said, the sample method chosen must ensure a sufficient quantity of high molecular weight DNA for successful downstream analysis.
  3. Sample storage. There is often limited infrastructure for freezer storage to maintain high quality samples over time so it is important we have appropriate means of keeping samples stable at room temperature. Besides cold storage, it is also very useful to have means of collecting samples without needing to extract DNA right away, whether in the case of buffy coat or saliva. 

6. What kind samples do you work with in your laboratory?  More and more laboratories are incorporating the use of saliva samples, as oppose to traditional blood samples. This is true for research laboratories and for service companies, including Genomica Médica and others. We prefer saliva and we are continuously providing information about the benefits of saliva collection for DNA analysis. We also accept purified DNA, whole blood, and tissue samples when looking specifically at tumors. But more and more the most common way we receive samples is from saliva.  In my opinion Oragene/saliva kits are the leading brand and company around the world and I have always been satisfied with the quality and quantity of DNA that we obtain, even from samples that go through a rough path before getting to the lab. Oragene/saliva samples are extremely reliable, particularly in population studies when we need large numbers of donors in different parts of the country where infrastructure to take large numbers of samples is not always available. Furthermore, translating genomics into personalized medicine, saliva collection is convenient and avoids unnecessary hurdles related to traditional blood collection. Both for individualized testing and population studies, I recommend saliva for DNA collection, and specifically Oragene based on my experience.

7. What future do you see in genomics research and practice in Mexico? We begin to see genomic research translate into the clinical practice in different parts of the world. This is having impact in healthcare and the economy, as it is expected that genomic medicine will lead into a more preventive clinical practice. I believe there is a window of opportunity to be part of the leading countries developing genomic medicine around the world. Those who join early will become part of the group of leading countries and leading institutions that will benefit from genomics. Those however who might claim lack of infrastructure, funding, or human resources as an excuse not to join genomics early will become followers and will have a significantly higher price tag to pay. On the innovation curve, followers get a very small return of investment as they are at the mercy of paying license to those leading technology. We recently carried out economic studies in genomic applications particularly in pharmacogenomics demonstrating tremendous financial benefits Mexico can realize in implementing personalized medicine. We are currently exploring interactions with insurance companies in Mexico to develop synergies for implementing personalized medicine in clinical practice. It is important for Latin America to recognize the full potential of genomics and join early for the benefit of their population. Knowing this continent, there are Latin American countries that have great leadership potential, particularly Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and most definitely Mexico, among others.

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