This Hawaiian geneticist works to empower Indigenous peoples
Through genomic studies, Keolu Fox spearheads the search for clues to new medicines, better health care, and even land reclamation.
When a graduate school professor told Native Hawaiian Keolu Fox that studying the genetics and genomics of Indigenous peoples was “career suicide,” Fox vowed that all his projects would prioritize the health of minorities.
Fox followed through on that commitment after learning that most genetic studies and clinical trials are based on people of European ancestry—a bias that could result in unsafe or useless treatments for people of other backgrounds, as well as policies that compound health inequities.
An assistant professor at the University of California, San Diego and a National Geographic Explorer, Fox says it’s critical for “historically vulnerable communities to be in control of their information.” So he co-founded the school’s Indigenous Futures Institute and the Native BioData Consortium, which he calls the “Motown Records of genomics.” Fox believes that identifying genetic signatures that predispose Indigenous peoples to disease—and others that confer adaptations to their Native lands—could lead to better medicines and health care.
To ensure that Indigenous peoples benefit from drugs developed from their genes, he wants them to receive at least 4 percent of the revenue—money he hopes they’ll use to take back ancestral grounds that shaped their genomes.
This story appears in the November 2022 issue of National Geographic magazine.