Isolated islands are pristine laboratories for studying the role of genes in disease-if commerce and tradition don't cloud the view

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When bryan sykes' motorbike collided with a palm tree while he was holidaying on Rarotonga in 1990, he had no idea it would ignite a gene hunt that would take him back thousands of years into Pacific Islanders' past. But while recuperating from his broken shoulder in the Cook Islands, the professor of human genetics at the University of Oxford set about solving one of the region's most enduring mysteries: how was the Pacific settled, and by whom? By sequencing the mitochondrial dna he had extracted from blood samples stored in the local hospital, Sykes managed to follow a genetic trail back 30,000 years to Asia-not South America, from where it was widely believed the first Polynesians had come. For this he has the clear bloodlines of the Pacific to thank. The region's dna "is very homogeneous," says Sykes. "It's the simplest, most straightforward population I've ever dealt with."

No wonder the South Pacific has become the latest frontier for researchers trying to isolate the genetic mutations thought to play a role in ailments from breast cancer to heart disease-and reap the bounty of lucrative pharmaceutical cures. Last year, migraine researchers from Queensland's Griffith University began collecting dna from people on Norfolk Island, 1,500 km northeast of Sydney, and in November, Australian company Autogen announced a deal to study genes in Tonga. It's hoped the west Polynesian kingdom's 108,000 residents, many of whom have 10 siblings, will provide clues to complaints like diabetes and obesity, which are common here. "The thing when tracing genes is to try and get good family structures, good family connections," says Autogen ceo Greg Collier. "If you get diabetes and your brother doesn't, then with big families we can statistically start to work out which bits of the gene makeup could be causing what."

If such studies seem complex, so are the ethical issues they raise. Questions of privacy and ownership still surround the Icelandic government's 1999 decision to hand over its citizens' medical and genealogical records to the multinational biotechnology company deCODE. To avoid such controversy, Autogen stressed that the blood samples it collected would be taken only from willing donors and would remain the property of Tonga, which would receive royalties from any profitable discoveries.

Nine months later, Autogen's gene-hunting program in Tonga is on hold, and a Health Ethics and Research Committee has been set up in Nuku'alofa, the capital, to investigate the project. "Unfortunately the Pacific has become a laboratory for exotic researchers," says Dr. Malakai 'Ake of Tonga's Ministry of Health. "They find there's a high rate of diabetes and then go away. That is why we're looking very carefully at Greg Collier's study. We do not want to repeat history."

Convincing Tongans, scattered across 172 islands, about the benefits of gene discovery was bound to be difficult, concedes Collier: "We were very conscious of the potential for misinformation-largely from the mistakes made in Iceland." tongans sell right to dna data and company acquires island gene pool were typical of the world headlines that greeted the Autogen deal. But their shrill tone was nothing compared to the alarm raised in Tonga. "There's no Tongan word for genes," explains Mateni Tapueluelu, deputy editor of the weekly Taimi 'o Tonga, who says people were immediately distrustful of the project. "The fact that it's being considered by an ethical committee almost guarantees that it's not going to go on," he says.

In an office at Nuku'alofa's Vaiola Hospital, a breeze flicks a worn pastel curtain as ethics committee secretary Dr. Sunia Foliaki leafs through Autogen's still-unsigned research agreement, which promises at least $20,000 to set up a research facility at the hospital. "To propose the commercialization of the Tongan people's genetic material with a $20,000 check warrants a lot of questions," Foliaki says. With half the wards filled with victims of diabetes and heart disease, "we're too busy putting out fires," he says.

Across the Pacific, at Griffith University's Genomic Research Institute on the Gold Coast, Lyn Griffiths has already mapped a few genes that may be involved in hypertension from the dna she collected on Norfolk Island last year. "In the long term, someone will obviously make money out of it," she says. "But I don't know if that's the point. The point is to have better health."

Progress and profit also weigh heavily on Foliaki's mind as his committee ponders the Autogen proposal. "How do you value your genes?" he says. For Tongans, heredity carries a moral value as well as a monetary one. "It's dna that's been handed down to people by their ancestors,"says Oxford's Bryan Sykes. "So it's a precious thing for individuals and for communities-certainly not something that should be bought and sold." Tonga is still weighing the cost.