As medical research methods and technology improve, so grows the collection of data we have about the human body, its failures, its capability, its genetic information. When it comes to medical research and indigenous peoples, our first reaction might suggest that we conduct this research to isolate genetic variances in the human population. On the genetic level, though, humans are incredibly similar, even if they are from vastly different climates, locations, and geographies. Partially, this is due to the fact that up to this point, most genetics research has taken place in North America and Europe utilizing local test subjects. Obviously, this has an impact on data, and forms the rationale behind the Human Genome Project’s goal of expanding medical research to indigenous populations around the world.
Fortunately, medical research into these populations does not as of yet seem to be motivated by potential corporate profit, but rather an effort on the part of the scientific community to better understand how human beings came to be, as well as how we diverged from common ancestors and how that divergence eventually lead to modern humans. With funding from the Human Genome Project, scientists also hope to discover both common and uncommon disease-linked genetic variations. New treatments for known diseases may be uncovered through the study of genetic variation, possibly in addition to new, more effective treatments for known diseases.
Genetics research, like most scientific disciplines, often requires large sample sizes to establish data. Medical researchers must first locate the gene (or genes) associated with the condition in question, as well as families in whom the disease is common independent of any environmental cause. As one can imagine this is a difficult undertaking, but it leads to the ultimate goal of a complete genetic sequence for the genes causing the condition.
Unfortunately for indigenous populations, commercial interests may move in as these links in genetic variation are discovered. If the accompanying genetics research appears profitable for large pharmaceutical companies, these corporations may use their considerable assets to commercialize the research itself. While this practice can put further genetics research on local indigenous populations in jeopardy, it may, considering the alternatives, be the best opportunity to maximize the benefits gained from newly discovered genetic variances. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), bringing a new drug to market is an expensive, multiyear process often necessitating some corporate intervention to create new medications. The World Health Organization (WHO) also hosts information on the ethical treatment of indigenous populations while genetics research is being conducted.