How Africa mines its genomic treasure

How Africa mines its genomic treasure

Close-up of a pipette adding stem cells to a petri dish.

African researchers want to better study the African genome. To this end, capabilities on the continent will be expanded. (photo alliance / Westend61 / Andrew Brookes)

The African Union records around 140 outbreaks of infectious diseases every year: dengue in Ethiopia, Ebola in Uganda, chikungunya in Burkina Faso, cholera in Malawi. Some of these diseases spread further into Europe and America. In reality they could be detected first in Africa and then contained overall. African researchers are working on this by examining people’s genes.

Africa is considered the origin of humanity’s genetic heritage. From there it spread, adapted and changed. The oldest and most diverse genetic material in the world is still found on the continent today. This makes it a real treasure for medical research. Even when it comes to fighting diseases.

Human geneticist Shahida Moosa believes that all of Africa needs more genomic research. Only in this way will the world be able to benefit. You are co-director of the Afro-European research project “Genomics for Health in Africa”.

“We need to sequence the genomes of millions of Africans to truly understand the genetic diversity of the continent,” says Moosa. So far only 3-6% of all studies have looked at Africans. “We are one and a half billion people with the greatest genetic diversity in the world.”

International studies have so far focused on the genetic makeup of people in Europe and the United States. Even today the best equipped research centers are located there. With Africa there is a huge empty space in the center of the world map, says human geneticist.

It would have been better to start where humanity originated, says Malebo Malope. He advises patients with hereditary diseases in South Africa.

Genomic research, known as genomics, can help with inherited diseases. This branch of science records, decodes and analyzes genetic material. Genomics provides a kind of instruction manual for how the human body works and a model for pathogens. Research can therefore help contain the spread of epidemics and identify and treat diseases. This research is booming all over the world, including in Africa.

The need to become independent from foreign countries has become painfully clear for Africa during the coronavirus pandemic. Given the huge international demand, vaccines were made available late. Much later than the rich countries of the world. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke of “vaccine apartheid” at an international forum in Dakar in 2021.

Since then, self-sufficiency has been the mantra of the Pan-African Health Authority. It began coordinating the distribution of existing vaccines and medicines.

Local production and the expansion of research facilities are also supported. The focus is on infectious diseases. Other areas of genomic research can also benefit from this advantage. Research on cancer, Parkinson’s, diabetes but also on rare diseases.

Africa on the move: Africa wants to determine for itself what Africa is

The South African “Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation” (CERI) is probably one of the best equipped institutes in Africa. CERI discovered the world’s first omicron variant of the coronavirus and then made it known for reasons of transparency.

Soon after, European countries and the United States imposed blanket travel bans on several African countries, with severe economic consequences. This has angered African governments and researchers. At the same time he urged her on.

Cheryl Baxter researches at CERI and says:At the beginning of the pandemic, many African countries still had to send their samples to foreign laboratories. Today we can sequence more and more of them here on site.” This means that results are available more quickly.

Africa on the move: Africa wants to determine for itself what Africa is

The Sudanese virologist Abdualmoniem Omer Abdalla is a guest of CERI as part of a research grant: “I would like to at least implement minimum standards in Sudan. Before the corona pandemic, we needed a year and a half or a whole year for analysis. Now it can be done within a month.”

The South African Center for Epidemic Response and Innovation (CERI) shares its knowledge. Over the past three years it has hosted more than 400 fellows from 46 African countries. The virologist Abdualmoniem Omer Abdalla of Sudan was surprised by the “well-equipped laboratories” and “expertise of the staff”, he says.

He did not see such facilities during his training in China and Italy. “I didn’t think they existed here in Africa,” she admits.

In Sudan, Omer’s homeland, there is a lack of know-how. Just this year, the first and so far only sequencing machine was delivered to the capital Khartoum. That’s why Omer wants to come back soon and share his new knowledge.

The Pan-African exchange is led by the African Union (AU). The plan is to expand and create several centers of excellence for genomics on the continent.

“We have significantly expanded genomic capabilities in Africa in recent years,” says Sofonias Tessema, program manager at the AU Health Authority. But there is still a long way to go to fully exploit the potential. The researcher explains that, above all, genomic discoveries must also be taken into consideration in decisions relating to health and medical development.

“We believe we can train a large number of young African scientists in this way,” says Christian Happi, director of the African Center of Excellence for Genomics and Infectious Diseases in Nigeria. He is also involved in establishing pan-African centers of excellence.

The goal is to use genomics as a tool. Furthermore, we should also collaborate with businesses “so that an independent industry is created on our continent that develops diagnostics, vaccines and medicines”.

Together with the director of the South African CERI Institute, Shahida Moosa leads the African-European research project “Genomics for Health in Africa”, with partners from universities in Germany and Switzerland.

Moosa sees this as a benefit for Africa and Europe:It’s not the traditional model. So the Europeans teach us something, build something and Africa remains passive.” We can learn a lot from Africa, he says, for example in the field of rare diseases, the development of syndromes and variants. “Our knowledge can be shared with clinics Europeans or… research institutes help.”

Shahida Moosa, for example, leads a research group on rare diseases. “Individually, they are rare,” she says. But overall in each country 6% suffer from a rare disease. That would be 90 million Africans. Almost none of them have a diagnosis, Moosa says. “Up to 400 million people worldwide suffer from a rare disease. This is far more than all the people infected with HIV.”

Unlike HIV, for many rare diseases there are still no effective drugs or only extremely expensive therapies. However, for patients and their families only the diagnosis is important, explains the human geneticist.

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