2018-03-20 23:22:09

A biobank for ethnic minorities will be established in the southwestern province of Yunnan, according to a blog affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The Yunnan Ethnic Minorities Biobank will collect biological samples — including blood and tissue — from consenting members of the province’s myriad ethnic minority groups, to be applied to novel medical treatments and stem cell research.

The program will target 25 ethnic minorities in Yunnan that often aren’t represented in scientific studies, Yang Jingyi, head of the biobank and a senior researcher at Shunxi Regenerative Medicine, a privately owned biotech company, told Sixth Tone. “With this approach, we hope to fill the void of biological data for Asia’s ethnic minorities,” Yang said, referring to the relative abundance of genetic information about Caucasians and Han Chinese, compared with smaller ethnic groups.

Researchers have some preliminary findings regarding the various health risks among China’s minority groups, said Yang, but further study is needed to determine whether they are actually significant. For example, researchers will try to determine why there is a high incidence of cirrhosis in the Wa minority group, why girls from some ethnic communities reach puberty at an earlier age, and whether blood pressure medication for Han Chinese is equally effective for Hui people.

According to Yang, health care disparity is a problem in Yunnan: Most of the province’s medical resources are concentrated in the capital city of Kunming, yet most ethnic minorities live in small, rural communities.

The biobank — a collaboration between Yang’s company and Kunming City Maternal and Child Health Hospital — was approved on March 15 by the Yunnan Provincial Academy of Science and Technology, which will also supervise the program.

Patients will be informed about the biobank and asked if they would like to contribute to it, Yang said, stressing that no samples will be taken without permission. In addition, she added, translators will be available to ensure that the offer to participate is clearly communicated.

Each contributor to the biobank will have their government ID number recorded, said Yang, though patients will not be identified in published reports, and their personal information will be closely protected.

But similar projects elsewhere in China have nonetheless raised a host of privacy concerns. In this case, too, some in the scientific community are wondering whether it’s possible for the biobank to have a big impact, as Yunnan has many ethnic minorities but relatively few members of each. Moreover, the standards for collection are strict: According to Yang, the biobank isn’t interested in obtaining samples from people of mixed ethnic heritage.

Critics of biobanks point out that the inappropriate use of DNA test results could pave the way for discrimination. Yet another obstacle is transport: Blood and tissue samples must be preserved at low temperatures as they’re carted from villages to Kunming for research, said Yang.

Yet despite the Yunnan biobank’s many challenges, Yang said it should pave the way for groundbreaking genetic research and in-depth study of both human evolution and the incidence of disease among certain groups.

“In the future,” Yang said, “we hope we’ll be able to provide better guidance to minority groups seeking medical treatment.”

Editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: Girls belonging to the Miao ethnic minority group wear traditional clothing at a festive gathering in Longga Village, Guizhou province, Feb. 6, 2017. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images/VCG)