Genetic testing applications arrive in Serbia and the world


WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus' tweet thanking the WHO Science Council for its inaugural report

"Genomic technologies are driving some of the most ground-breaking research happening today. Yet the benefits of these tools will not be fully realized unless they are deployed worldwide. Only through equity, can science reach its full potential impact and improve health for everyone, everywhere," said Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, WHO Chief Scientist. 

As post-pandemic recovery speeds up, there is increasing realization about the value of genomic technology applications in confronting infectious diseases, cancers, and other chronic diseases. But how exactly can these tools become more accessible worldwide? 

This requires the contributions of professionals such as BGI Genomics Field Applications Support engineer and project leader Grace Xu who has spent over two-thirds of her time supporting clients since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in February 2020. She joins us to share her unique perspective after 22 months away from home at Serbia, Saudi Arabia and Australia.

Spending over half of her time overseas since Feb 2020

Xu returned to China in June 2022, after spending eight months in Serbia helping to train a local team at the country's first genome sequencing center at the Serbian Genome Sequencing and Bio-informatics Center. There are strict quality control standards, and the local team is benchmarked against the sequencing results that a more established team at another location is churning out.

This center has a COVID-19 sequencing line. In addition, there are three other sequencing product lines focusing on non-invasive prenatal testing (NIPT), whole exome sequencing (WES) and whole genome sequencing (WGS).

BGI Genomics' Grace Xu training her counterparts at the Serbian Genome Sequencing and Bio-informatics Center

This is Xu's third trip overseas. She spent four months in Australia and ten months in Saudi Arabia. In total, she spent around 22 months overseas since COVID-19 started in February 2020. 

"I actually spent more than two-thirds of my time overseas since February 2020 but it was a time of great personal and professional growth for myself as I got to lead teams overseas and learn from our clients. My family was very encouraging even when I missed home and that kept me going as well," Xu said. 

Looking back, Xu noticed that her team’s work depends on where we are at in terms of global COVID-19 response. For Serbia, COVID-19 control is still important but there is great interest to realize other important genomic applications as well.

The bond of friendship between Serbia and China

BGI Genomics had implemented a Huoyan lab project earlier though Xu was not involved in it, but she met some members of the Serbian team that were involved in that work. 

This proved useful as Serbia invested in the construction and infrastructure of this Center as per their requirements since these team members understood the safety aspect of the work very well.

As this Center is located within the University of Belgrade, "Our Serbian counterparts are extremely qualified with many of them holding doctorate degrees and asking very good questions," Xu said. "It is no surprise that this Center is setting new milestones such as being the first NIPT facility in the country."

NIPT is suitable for screening advanced pregnancy, twin pregnancy, and pregnancies with a history of trisomy, high risk of aneuploidy, contraindications for invasive procedures, or in-vitro fertilization.

The BGI Genomics team at the Serbian Genome Sequencing and Bio-informatics Center, Grace Xu is third from left

There is a close bond of friendship between Serbia and China. "Outside the laboratories, we often receive 'ni hao' (hello in Chinese) greetings and hear 'Thank you for helping out during the pandemic' from ordinary folks," Xu said. 

"The Center staff also organized a one-day city tour for the BGI Genomics team when we wrapped up our work and getting ready to return to China," Xu said.

Dr. Jelena Begovic, Director of the Serbian Genome Sequencing and Bio-informatics Center: "We are working closely with stakeholders from various fields, to provide affordable, secure and ethical access to this technology. I also hope that we will continue to collaborate more deeply with BGI Genomics in the development of the BIO4 campus in Belgrade."

"In the post-pandemic era, Serbia is proactively accelerating access to genomics for the public. I am encouraged to hear Dr. Jelena's comments and see that the WHO's Science Council call for equitable expansion of genomics," Xu said.

BGI Genomics is aligned with Serbia and WHO's objectives and shares a commitment to make genomics applications more available, affordable and accessible. 

"There is much that we could do together with Serbia especially in terms of early detection of diseases such as HPV which might lead to cervical cancer. We look forward to working with our Serbian friends at this Center in the future," Xu said.

About the Serbian Genome Sequencing and Bio-informatics Center 

The Serbian Genome Sequencing and Bio-informatics Center, located within the Institute of Molecular Genetics and Genetic Engineering (IMGGE), seeks to develop and enhance its genomic analysis, whole exome sequencing (WES) and whole genome sequencing (WGS) capabilities. Serbia has invested in the construction and infrastructure of this Center while BGI Genomics has donated equipment such as a genomic sequencer and sent a team of five Chinese technical experts to train their Serbian counterparts over eight months.

About BGI Genomics 

BGI Genomicsheadquartered in Shenzhen China, is the world’s leading integrated solutions provider of precision medicine. Our services cover more than 100 countries and regions, involving more than 2,300 medical institutions. In July of 2017, as a subsidiary of BGI Group, BGI Genomics (300676.SZ) was officially listed on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange.