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Japan gov't plans full-genome analysis on 93,000 people to boost medical research

The building housing the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare is seen in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward. (Mainichi/Kimi Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- Japan will perform full-genome analysis on medical samples from as many as 93,000 people under an action plan revealed by the country's health ministry.

The blood, cancer cells and other samples are held at hospital and research institute biobanks around the country, and will be prioritized for analysis for a number of years. Special priority will be placed on samples from some 22,000 people expected to be useful for research in hopes of discovering details of cancer and intractable diseases and drugs for their treatment.

Analyzing a person's entire genome could allow researchers to identify genetic causes or trigger mechanisms for certain diseases that may not be apparent from looking at just one part of the patient's genes. There are also hopes that building a database combining results of the full-genome analysis of cancer patients with clinical information will help Japan formulate broader cancer-fighting measures.

According to the action plan, cancer patient samples make up some 65,000 of the total set for full genome analysis, while about 28,000 are from people with other intractable conditions. For the analysis, a sample genome needs to be compared with data such as a healthy blood sample and the genetic makeup of the patient's parents. That being the case, the plan will in fact require full analysis of some 168,000 genomes. Furthermore, new samples from the patients will also be obtained for analysis.

In the coming years, blood and cancer cell samples from the 22,000 people stored at biobanks in the country will be given priority for analysis, with the subjects' consent. These initial studies will seek the genetic causes of cancers with low 5-year survival rates, rare and hereditary cancers as well as intractable illnesses that could not be identified through partial genome analysis.

However, there remain many unanswered questions about whether and to what degree information from full-genome breakdowns will lead to new and effective diagnostic, treatment, and drug options. The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare will examine the results from studies using the priority samples, and clarify a target number of specimens needed for analysis in cases where the development of diagnostic and treatment methods can be expected.

Full-genome analysis medical research projects are proceeding apace under government-backed programs in other countries. Britain, for example, began full-genome analysis for 100,000 people with cancer or rare diseases in 2018. The U.K. government is aiming to analyze the genomes of a million people by 2023.

(Japanese original by Sooryeon Kim, Lifestyle and Medical News Department)

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