By Bogi Eliasen
August 28, 2013 | In the high north, the tiny Faroese population has been isolated for more than 1,000 years. History teaches that Norwegian Vikings ventured further North when their chiefs began to collect tax. Genetic insights show that Faroese males are of Norse origin while the females are more dominated by Celtic ancestry. Some of the immigrants stayed in these amazingly beautiful islands while others used the islands as stepping stones to Iceland, Greenland and the west coast of North America, which by some sagas, was discovered by the Faroese Viking Nadoddur.
Alone in the North Atlantic, subject to nature’s brute force, and far away from mainland Europe, the Faroe Islands became a genetically isolated population. With a steady population of 3,000 to 4,000 people until the 18th century, now grown to 50,000, the Faroe Islands are home to a tiny, but modern society with good welfare and health care systems. Measured by the Gini Index, the Faroes are the most equal society in the world. By official crime statistics, the Faroes have the world’s lowest crime rate. But—as in the rest of the world—health care in the Faroes still has challenges and as in any remote polity, brain drain is a constant threat.
The small society, public and digitalized health care system and the high level of community trust have set the stage for a project to make the Faroes the world front runners in applying genomics in the clinic, and using genomics in research.
The FarGen Project will be offering whole genome sequencing to all inhabitants of the Faroe Islands. The first aim of the project is to have 1000 persons sequenced by mid-2014. The project also plans to establish a sequencing center in the Faroes. The first milestone is to make a Faroese reference genome which will hopefully be ready by the end of the year.
A fundamental part of the FarGen Project is a public education program that integrates genetics into relevant subject curricula from first grade through high school.
FarGen is a holistic project, where the sequenced data will be made usable in health care and in research. The data will be integrated into the existing national electronic healthcare system and tools will be developed to help integrate genomic knowledge into the daily routine for doctors and other health staff.
With the introduction of the Faroe Islands Human Genetics Act and the opening of the national Genetic Biobank in 2006, the stage was set for a thriving genetic research environment in the Faroe Islands. The digitalization of the Faroese genome, combined with the extensive health and digitized genealogy records in the Faroese health system, will boost our general understanding of health issues.
To support and encourage research, the Project hosts an annual conference: the FarGen Summit. The first one was held last year and the FarGen Summit 2013 will be held on September 19-20 in the capital, Tórshavn.
FarGen hopes to foster broad cooperation around the world. Both the establishing of the infrastructure and research and the ongoing future research and development will require cooperation and openness to the world of genomics. We do aim at improving Faroese health with FarGen but also to facilitate global research as our small contribution to realize the possibilities and uses of genomics as a fundamental source for future global health.
For more information on the conference visit www.fargen.fo/summit
Bogi Eliasen is the Director of FarGen.