TORONTO (Reuters) - Quebecers, many of them descended from a handful of families who arrived from France, could hold the key to medical breakthroughs as their tiny gene pool provides the perfect testing ground for researchers and pharmaceutical firms.
John Hooper, chief executive of Genizon BioSciences Inc., a privately owned Montreal biotech company, told Reuters in an interview on Friday that the population of the French-speaking Canadian province has remained relatively isolated over the last 250 years. The small gene pool is a dream for scientists seeking cures for genetic diseases, he added.
“Almost all French Canadians today are derived from that group that expanded essentially in isolation until the 1950s,” Hooper said.
“It means that the genes of this group of 2,600 people are replicated in many people, so you have a large population carrying very similar genes. That’s the kind of things that geneticists love.”
Genizon supplies “gene maps” to pharmaceutical companies, and the firms can use these maps to isolate genes responsible for common diseases and develop drugs and treatments.
The French started living in what is now Quebec in 1608, and the descendants of those 2,600 French founders are still known as “pure laine” (100 percent wool) in what has become a province of 7 million people.
Quebec, then known as New France, became a British colony in 1763, and subsequent non-francophone immigrants from Europe settled in the western part of the province, and there was limited intermarriage between the two groups until well into the 20th century.
Hooper said there were far fewer variations for known disease genes in Quebec than elsewhere in the world, and that made it easier to isolate existing variations.
Quebec is also the largest “medically useful” founder population worldwide, allowing pharmaceutical companies to recruit patients faster and select them more successfully.
Founded in 1999, Genizon BioSciences has been collecting DNA data from more than 45,000 Quebecers through whole-genome studies. It has conducted work on about 25 diseases, including asthma, schizophrenia and psoriasis.
Last August, Genizon licensed exclusive rights to DNA data on Crohn’s disease, a bowel disorder, to Genentech for an undisclosed sum.
Hooper said the company is currently in negotiations with six other pharmaceutical companies over DNA data licensing deals.