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Island-based research to ensure drugs effectively designed for people of Caribbean descent

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Carika Weldon, PhD, and Duranda Greene, PhD, president of the Bermuda College, at the announcement of CariGenetics (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

A new partnership between Bermudian scientist Carika Weldon and Bermuda College will help to create genetic data ensuring drugs are effectively designed for people of Caribbean descent.

Dr Weldon has launched CariGenetics — short for Caribbean Genetics — a company and social enterprise that she says was created out of a worldwide need for data from the genomics research field for Caribbean people.

Unveiling the venture at a presentation at the Bermuda College yesterday, Dr Weldon said: “The global genome database used for drug discovery does not have Caribbean people represented. This means drugs are not designed for us and in fact can cause adverse effects.

“It is possible to correct this, but only through empowering ourselves to do genomic studies for the benefit of our community and ensuring the data is fully owned by us.

“Our overall mission is to conduct genomic research in the Caribbean by the Caribbean for the Caribbean. We aim to unlock the Caribbean genome to improve health outcomes for all and protect our region from climate change.”

Dr Weldon explained that research will look at climate change from a genetic perspective and revealed that she will be working on a project next year to understand the genetics of coral reefs. She said the goal will be to create probiotics that will help to protect the reefs.

She added: “The other thing is, when it comes to our human projects which we will look to launch next year, we are trying to find what we can do that will help to improve our health. We are trying to understand our genetics and will be working to have drugs designed for us.”

Carika Weldon has launched CariGenetics, a company and social enterprise she says was created out of a worldwide need for data from the genomics research field for Caribbean people (Photograph supplied)

Dr Weldon is an adjunct lecturer at Bermuda College which has partnered with CariGenetics to allow eligible students and faculty to get involved through volunteering and internships.

Duranda Greene, president of the Bermuda College, said the college was "honoured“ to partner with Dr Weldon in this ”pioneering, remarkable, and critical“ part of Bermuda’s biodiversity and genetics research.

Dr Greene said: “The research projects that will be undertaken portend unprecedented significance in understanding the unique genetic factors that impact human and environmental health in Bermuda, and in the wider Caribbean community.

“We are particularly grateful for the exciting opportunity afforded Bermuda College students and employees not only to be affiliated with these projects that will be published in peer reviewed international journals, but which will also connect us with leading-edge research institutions.”

Those institutions include Rockefeller University, the University of Rochester, Cornell University and Northeastern University.

Dr Greene added: “Closer to home, it is gratifying to be able to join with BIOS and the Bermuda Cancer and Health Centre as they contribute more precise insight to localised and regional distinctives to this type of research.”

Duranda Greene, left, Bermuda College president, Carika Weldon and Ian Walker (Photograph by Akil Simmons)
Work on the cahow

CariGenetics’ first environmental project will sequence Bermuda’s national bird, the cahow, once thought to be extinct but rediscovered by David Wingate, whom she described as a “national hero”.

Dr Weldon said: “Phase 1 of this project will sequence our critically endangered national treasure for the first time. A high-quality reference genome will allow us to better understand cahow health, determine genetic diversity and track the findings over successive generations.”

This work is in collaboration with Erich Jarvis, chairman of the Vertebrate Genome Project at Rockefeller University. Oxford nanopore sequencing will take place at the Bermuda College, where CariGenetics’ first volunteer, Dr Weldon’s mentee, Leone Trott, an S1 student at The Berkeley Institute, will be involved.

The work undertaken will create the draft genome and the rest of the work will take place at Rockefeller University where a Bermudian will be trained on million-dollar sequencing machines.

She added: “By also teaching a Bermudian how to perform the downstream data analysis, the first high-quality reference genome of the Bermuda cahow done by Bermudians will be complete.”

Phase 1 of the project will be supported by the Department of Environment and National Resources and is funded by the Bermuda Zoological Society.

Ian Walker, principal curator and veterinarian of the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum and Zoo, said: “Funding from the BZS will allow Dr Weldon to produce a comprehensive reference-quality genome for the cahow (Pterodroma cahow) to better understand disease susceptibility, rare genetic traits and understand the role of epigenetics in their health.

“Additionally, in partnership with experts from Jamestown Rediscovery and the University of Connecticut, Dr Weldon will attempt to obtain ‘ancient DNA’ from cahow bones found at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1609 to compare and contrast with the current population. This may provide scientists with further information about how genetic bottlenecks affect species recovery when populations are significantly disrupted.”

Dr Weldon said the work being undertaken will put Bermuda at the cutting edge of this type of research. She added: “What Dr Walker said about the ancient DNA, that is something that will put us right at the forefront. With the coral reefs, that is a technique that is being developed in Saudi Arabia; it is very new.

“The world is getting smaller — you can be in Bermuda, represent Bermuda and partner with other places around the world and that is what we will be going.”

Dr Weldon returned to Bermuda from England at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic two years ago and took on the leadership of the testing programme. There she led a team of analysts to carry out the Molecular Diagnostic Laboratory.

She resigned as the Government’s scientific adviser in January after the refusal of unnamed civil servants to listen to warnings that the lab would be overburdened by testing demands over Christmas and before the return to school.

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Published October 12, 2022 at 9:19 pm (Updated October 12, 2022 at 9:19 pm)

Island-based research to ensure drugs effectively designed for people of Caribbean descent

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