CAMBRIDGE — Mexican billionaire and philanthropist Carlos Slim Helú visited the Broad Institute on Monday afternoon to announce a $74 million gift to the genomics center that will advance biomedical research that benefits people in Latin America.
The money is aimed at helping to correct a bias in genomic studies of human disease, which often analyze DNA taken from people of European descent. That approach may overlook important genetic causes of disease in non-European populations — and could one day result in people at the highest risk of a disease not getting the best treatments.
“I try to support this kind of project — that is for the interest of everyone in the world, but with some focus in Mexico and Latin America,” Slim said in an interview at the Broad. He said the largest share of his philanthropy is in Mexico and Latin America, and this contribution to a Boston-area institution is in keeping with that mission because he hopes the investment will spark progress in human health more universally.
“It’s very important, when we have public health problems like diabetes, to know the causes and try to find solutions,” Slim said. The international partnership was sparked about 4½ years ago, when Eric Lander, who heads the Broad, gave a talk at the National Institute of Genomic Medicine of Mexico and was told Slim, one of the richest people in the world, wanted to pick his brain about DNA and disease.
Lander said their meeting, scheduled for a half-hour, went on for almost three. An intensely curious man, Slim, whose fortune comes mainly from the telecommunications industry, peppered Lander with questions about topics that ranged from baseball — who is the best pitcher ever? — to genes.
“He was quizzing me about what could all this DNA created by the human genome project do for Latin America. Were people paying enough attention to Latin America?” Lander recalled. “I allowed how that was not really the case.”
Slim brought up health disparities in Latin American populations, curious whether genetic differences might play a role. In Mexico, for example, there is a high incidence of breast cancer, and the disease tends to occur when women are younger. Were genetic risk factors different for Latin Americans, he asked Lander. Would the genes that predispose people to develop type 2 diabetes be universal, or would scientists ignore important clues if they studied only disease risks in European populations?
Lander said the answer to such questions could be found by using the powerful tools of genomics on diverse populations, and Slim gave an initial $65 million to the Broad in 2010 to explore that idea. The gift, which Slim said was motivated partly by his admiration for Lander, also supported an ongoing scientific exchange and collaboration between the Broad and Mexican institutions, to help train people who could carry out and apply the findings to help benefit Latin America.
One study supported by that initial gift examined spots in the genomes of Mexican and Latino people with type 2 diabetes. By comparing spots in the genome that vary between healthy and sick people, that work identified a particular genetic change that was relatively common in people of Mexican and Latin American descent and associated with type 2 diabetes risk. Those populations are disproportionately affected by the disease.
“It had been missed in all the studies of European patients, and yet it turns out to be one of the most powerful genes that is known to affect diabetes,” Lander said. “The abstract idea that studying Mexican populations would lead to discoveries that are being missed turns out to be right.”
Even as it has become clear that studying diverse populations is important, the European bias remains. A 2011 opinion piece published in the journal Nature noted that 96 percent of subjects included in genome-wide association studies, which compare spots in the genomes of sick and healthy people to try to pinpoint genes involved in disease, were of European descent.
“It is tempting to focus on populations that are motivated, organized, medically compliant and otherwise easy to study,” the authors wrote. “But by failing to develop resources, methodologies and incentives for underserved people, we risk perpetuating the health disparities that plague the medical system.”
Lander said the new funding would be used to further investigate some of the initial findings from Slim’s early investment, including the diabetes risk gene. Ultimately, the scientists hope to develop treatments based on those insights that might be particularly effective in Latin American populations. Studying the world’s diverse populations is necessary to identify the genes that predispose people to both rare and common diseases, said Joan Bailey-Wilson, cochief of the inherited disease research branch at the National Human Genome Research Institute.
“I think it’s so important,” said Bailey-Wilson, who added that the Slim investment is exciting. “It’s what people like me have been going, ‘Yes, we want this. We need this.’ ”