Scientists are building New Zealand's first genomic database - with the hope of tackling some of the biggest diseases hurting Kiwis.

A collaboration with iwi, the Genomics Aotearoa Rakeiora programme is also taking aim at major health inequities that still leave Māori and Pacific people worse off.

The leading researchers behind the effort, which just received a Government cash injection of nearly $5m, say it's a first step toward what could become a crucial resource for Kiwi patients in the future.

Genomics focuses on the complex jigsaw puzzle that is our genetic make-up, and scientists have used it to understand more about everything from cancer to obesity.


Yet the bulk of those insights have come out of US and European datasets.

With the new funding, Genomics Aotearoa's director Professor Peter Dearden said, researchers could develop technology to get our own information – and about own unique genomes.

"Understanding our unique populations is going to be vital if we are to ensure that genomic medicine is not just for well-studied populations overseas."

World-renowned Otago University geneticist Professor Stephen Robertson likened not using this home-sourced data in medical care to renovating a house without knowing its designs and plans.

In the new programme, Robertson will work alongside Ngāti Porou Hauroa in the East Coast's Tairawhiti district to sequence the genomes of 500 local people.

By combining their genomic data with personal health records, they aim to show how certain genetic factors influence how different patients respond to different prescribed drugs.

"We are seeking to find a solution that is acceptable to participants, safe and secure but powerful enough to enable real-time research into decision making by primary care practitioners," Robertson said.

The ultimate hope was to widen the study so the approach could be used to predict risk for diseases like heart disease, breast cancer and diabetes.


Ngāti Porou Hauora Charitable Trust Board chairman Teepa Wawatai said his hapū had been collaborating with genetic researchers from Otago and Auckland universities for a decade.

Recently, they made a ground-breaking discovery in identifying more information about a variant of a gene that only exists in Māori and Pacific peoples.

"It's vitally important to have that genomic data available because it's key to developing precision medicine," Wawatai said.

A second project will use genomic data from 100 Auckland cancer patients to investigate how therapies can be better targeted.

Its leader, Professor Cristin Print of the University of Auckland, said the implication of several hundred specific genes in cancer had allowed scientists to develop a new generation of treatments.

"We've now got targeted drugs that work on a subset of patients," Print said.

"What we hope we're going to be able to do with these much bigger data sets is get finer and finer-grained details about people's cancers, to deliver the best possible treatment to each patient."

Research, Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods said the investment was a first step toward allowing researchers to put genomic insights into practice.

"And, in particular, [to] address the country's health inequities by developing genomic tools that put the needs and priorities of Māori at its centre."