Silent genomes: Reducing health care disparities and improving diagnostic success for children with genetic diseases from Indigenous populations

Health Research BC is providing match funds for this research project, which is funded by the Genome Canada/CIHR Large-Scale Applied Research Project (LSARP): Genomics and Precision Health funding opportunity. Additional support is provided by Genome BC, the BC Children’s Hospital Foundation, BC Provincial Services Health Authority and the University of British Columbia (UBC).


Indigenous populations in Canada and around the world face unique health challenges, inequities, and barriers to healthcare. As a result, they typically have poorer health outcomes than non-Indigenous groups.


The health disparity gap widens when it comes to Indigenous populations’ access to the technology and research involved in genomics – the study of the complete set of human genes – which have advanced health care by allowing medical treatments to be tailored to the specific needs of individual patients through precision medicine, routinely available to other Canadians.


Dr. Laura Arbour, a clinical geneticist at BC Children’s Hospital and Island Health, and a professor in UBC’s Department of Medical Genetics, is working to address the growing genomic divide – particularly the lack of background genetic variation data for Indigenous populations – through the Silent Genomes project. The four-year project aims to improve health outcomes by reducing health disparities, enhancing equitable access to diagnosis, treatment, and care for Indigenous children with genetic diseases. Arbour is joined on the project by the University of Northern British Columbia’s Dr. Nadine Caron, and Dr. Wyeth Wasserman from UBC and the BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute, where the research will be conducted, along with BC Women’s Hospital + Health Centre.


The Silent Genomes research team will work with First Nations, Inuit and Métis partners across Canada to establish processes for Indigenous-led governance of biological samples and genome data, leading to policy guidelines and best practice models for genomic research and clinical care.


The project will also create an Indigenous Background Variant Library (IBVL) of genetic variation from a pool of 1,500 First Nations Canadians that will improve the accuracy of genomic diagnosis by providing necessary reference data for Indigenous populations living in Canada and globally. Researchers will also assess the effectiveness of the IBVL to lower health care costs, and plan for long-term use of the IBVL for Canadian Indigenous children and adults needing genetic/genomic health care.