This article originally appeared in Science & Diplomacy on 19 March, 2015. It is republished here with permission.
One way to address the global challenges of public health in developing countries is through international collaboration to share data. It’s important to do this not just for humanitarian reasons but because open information is at the heart of scientific progress. One field in which this is particularly evident is genomic research, which has made revolutionary progress in recent years. Since the first genetic variation causing inherited disease (sickle-cell anemia) was defined at the protein level sixty years ago,1 it has become possible to locate, isolate, sequence, and clone individual genes. Indeed, there has been an explosion in research to discover the function of each of the twenty thousand or so human genes.
Once the Human Genome Project—the international effort to map the genes present in the human genome—was completed, a new global project was launched in 2006 to share information about genetic variation in clinical practice. The Human Variome Project (HVP) acts as an umbrella organization, actively engaging with partners and stakeholders in each country to ensure that genetic variation information, generated during routine diagnostic and predictive testing, is collected and shared. The HVP is also instrumental in establishing and maintaining the standards, systems, and infrastructure that will embed the sharing of this knowledge in routine clinical practice.2
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) serves as an important channel for the involvement of developing countries in the HVP, as it did during the Human Genome Project. One of the main goals of UNESCO is the development of international science that meets social needs in health, food, education, and other standards of living.
This goal has become increasingly relevant in the Post-2015 Development Agenda,3 which aims to address these global challenges, including the burden of diseases on the performance and growth of many nations, particularly in developing countries where issues of public health are of major concern.4 Formed at the end of World War II, UNESCO was one of numerous initiatives for international scientific cooperation undertaken by the nascent United Nations. These scientific cooperation initiatives were seen as diplomatic opportunities to promote collaborations among nations in hopes of fostering peace and development. The same sentiment is true today with the HVP, one of the latest efforts by UNESCO to promote collaboration.