In the 1800s, the people of Hawai’i were exposed to a disease for which they had no immunity or cure—leprosy. Thousands of Hawaiians were isolated on the Kalaupapa peninsula on Molokai to halt the spread of the contagious disease.
“Growing up I wondered, what is it in our genetic makeup that makes the local population susceptible to leprosy?” says Keolu Fox, PhD, whose mother is a native Hawaiian.
A geneticist and postdoctoral fellow in UC San Diego’s Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism, Fox uses genomic technologies to understand human variation and disease. He believes the genetic study of indigenous populations in particular can yield profound insights that could improve human health in general.
“In an era of personalized and preventative medicine, genetic differences can impact our health,” says Fox. “The amount of information in our DNA can benefit all of humanity, but we need to have representation of different ethnic and racial groups in genomic studies to make personalized medicine truly that.”
According to Fox, 80 percent of genome studies have focused exclusively on people of European ancestry, while less than one percent is specific to indigenous communities.
“They’re not sequencing what I would call ‘the most interesting populations,’” says Fox. “Why do the Sami people of Finland have potentially protective variants against heart disease? And why are some people adapted to high elevations? Whatever happens in terms of natural selection that results in a population having this protection could yield treatment for all humanity.”
Fox now advocates for more inclusive and representative genome sequencing to allow indigenous populations the ability to gather and analyze their own genetic data and contribute to health research. New technologies like mobile genome sequencing are helping to make this possible. “It’s a game changer. I think it’s going to have a profound bearing on the democratization of genomic sequencing and technologies.”
Fox’s unique way of looking at human genetics and its impact on health made him one of National Geographic’s Emerging Explorers for 2017. This recognition includes the funding of a research project that will take him back to Kalaupapa, where he will investigate the impact of leprosy in Hawai’i through the lens of genomics.
“If we don’t create a rainbow of genomic information that represents the people of this country, we will only exasperate health disparities,” says Fox. “But if you look at science through the eyes of indigenous or underrepresented people, you will find novel solutions.”