What is in an ‘Asian’ Gene?

Fang Xu

A compelling account of institutional ethnography, Aihwa Ong’s new book provides an in-depth look at Biopolis, a biomedical research center located in Singapore. Ong showcases Biopolis’s cosmopolitan science and global connections in terms of research funding, research scientists and institutions, and being a signatory to all intellectual property treaties.

Building from her earlier works discussing the meaning of Chinese-ness, in relation to the nation-state (Ong, Flexible Citizenship, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999), and Singapore’s developmental strategies for creating an international scientific research hub in Neoliberalism as Exception (Ong, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), this book reveals how Biopolis redefines ‘Asian’ through variations in genes, identity, disease, and space, based on their research in Asian DNA databases, stem cells, cancer, and endemic infectious diseases. Under discussion here is a new dimension of ‘Asianness’, one that is both more than skin deep, and beyond national borders, involving more than half of the world’s population.

Multiple dimensions of this Asianness found through biomedical research connects chapters of this book, from Asian-specific genetic diseases, to the amount of Asian scientists in the field, the assemblage of an ‘Asian-specific’ stem cell bank, and the promise to develop biomedical solutions to major genetic diseases that affect vast populations throughout Asia. To convince readers about the peculiarity and vulnerability of Asian bodies, Ong presents examples of biomedical data that have shown the high concentration of hepatitis B triggered lung cancer in Southeast Asia, and divergent responses to a lung cancer drug, Iressa, between nonsmoking young Asian woman and their white counterparts. Irrefutable examples presented in the book also include different results of Epstein-Barr virus infection between Caucasians and Asians; the virus causes mononucleosis for the former, but in Southern Chinese it causes nasopharyngeal carcinoma, or nose and throat cancer (p. 63).

Though not reserved in her praise for the contributions made by Biopolis’s scientists and researchers through developing cancer drugs and identifying peculiar vulnerability among Asian populations, among others, Ong is explicit in her uneasiness with population geneticists’ newfound evidence of Asians’ collective genetic past, which is a single departure from Africa. She rightfully suspects the agenda of this new discourse, asking who stands to benefit from this reinvented origin, this ‘renewed sense of Pan-Asian solidarity’ (p. 159) in a region long believed to consist of diverse populations and cultures. Through investigating this ethnically marked research field from the molecular, corporeal, to national, regional, and global levels, Ong articulates the anthropology of the future as something genetically embodied and used to label the Asian community. Fungibility in this study is essentially about the scaling, not only spatial, but also temporal: from a fabricated shared past to an imagined united future (pp. 161-2).

Through the three parts of the book, ‘Risks’, ‘Uncertainties’, and ‘Known Unknowns’, two themes emerge, one centers on small but pragmatic Singapore, and the other is the profound level of uncertainty in biomedical research at Biopolis and  Beijing Genomics Institute, which is a Chinese-led research organization that Ong is conducting ongoing research on.

Small and Pragmatic Singapore
Unlike Mainland China, Singapore, as a city-state, does not have the ambition to be a regional political or military power, or impose itself in that manner on its neighboring countries, or to challenge the leadership of Western countries. Its geographical location, an ethnically hybrid population, relative lack of corruption, efficient and pragmatic management, and the English fluency of its workforce, make Singapore an ideal place to host flows of global capital, international talent, and cutting edge research. When investigating how biomedical research scales from cells up in Biopolis, Ong reveals the Singaporean state’s strategic positioning of the country in the regional and global geopolitical future, and in the cosmopolitan science landscape through heavy state funding of biomedical science. Furthermore, as Ong points out, the intervention of the authoritarian Singaporean state at the beginning of the establishment of Biopolis, financially and institutionally, set the tone of research, that the general goal of biomedical research is to tackle the vulnerability and promote the wellbeing of a racialized populace, Asians.

Ong painstakingly peels away statements that sound like sales pitches from officials of Biopolis to provide us a critical angle to understand the various viewpoints of stakeholders involved in the institute. Given the geopolitical tension and the inherited ambiguity in the definition of Asian in general, and Chinese in particular, Ong in various places in the book stresses that Biopolis researchers ‘do not believe that cancer expressions come in ethnically defined categories, but that they are triggered by the interaction of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors’ (p. 70). Scientists at Biopolis work to rearticulate the collective ‘“Asian body” as a distinctive kind of medical object—not the “universal” raceless body of white or unraced medicine’ (p. 12). Thus, the purpose of differentiation is inclusion. Though based on this understanding, research carried out at Biopolis encounters grave ethical concerns. Of the greatest concern to Ong’s readers, and taking center stage of this book, is research ethics at multiple levels of data collection and dissemination, and the implications of that process.

Ethics in a sea of uncertainties

To both Singaporean scientists working at Biopolis and their Chinese counterparts who founded  Beijing Genomics Institute in southern China, virtue in science is articulated as serving the public interest. By public, they mean co-ethnic populations, as well as taking charge of bioresources and patrimonies, and defending their nations’ biosovereignty. However, from interviewing expatriate professionals, Ong reveals that often, ‘professional incentives and career advancements’ take precedence over ‘a personal duty to serve the common good’ (p. 114) at Biopolis. Besides potential uncertainties embedded in personnel structures within the institution, Ong points out other concerns involving various stakeholders in the field, which might compromise research ethics, such as big pharma, the source of research funding, and the outcomes for high-stake experiments, not to mention geopolitical tensions arising between South, Southeast, and East Asian countries that might jeopardize international collaboration (p.22).

What is strikingly revealed in this case is that Biopolis scientists need to painstakingly justify their position in investigating Asian diseases, and study Asian genomics, while previously European and American researchers conveniently extrapolated studies on Caucasians to apply to all humans, using the disguise of race-blindness, overlooking diseases and reactions to drugs unique in non-white populations. What Ong also explicitly communicates in this book is that older forms of racialization are no longer compatible with cutting-edge research, and will not become compatible again in the future. What Biopolis represents is the Asian version of cosmopolitan science that is no longer at the margin, and is not supposed to be. This revelation is one of the biggest contributions of this work. Furthermore, Ong stresses ‘the north-south framework is seriously out of date as well in its broad-brush representation of non-Western regions as lacking in professional ethics and reputable scientific experiments, or as places that exist solely through the template of neocolonial bioplunder’ (p. 96).

Embracing a new frontier, Ong’s latest work tackles our fear of the unknown in genomic research, concerns about multiple levels of research ethics, and our curiosity about genomic research’s implications for Chinese and Asian identity, which in turn has implications for human identity as a whole. This book on biomedical research is suitable for graduate students and scholars interested in the production of knowledge, science and technology studies, medical anthropology and sociology, ethnic studies, public health, and broadly Asian Studies.