How Africa mines its genomic treasure

African researchers want to better study the African genome. For this, capacities are being expanded on the continent. (image alliance / Westend61 / Andrew Brookes)

The African Union records about 140 outbreaks of infectious diseases each year: dengue in Ethiopia, Ebola in Uganda, chikungunya fever in Burkina Faso and cholera in Malawi. Some of these diseases spread to Europe and America. In fact, they could be detected earlier in Africa and therefore generally contained. Researchers in Africa are working on this by examining people’s genes.

Africa is considered the origin of the genetic makeup of humanity. From there it has spread, adapted and changed. To this day, the oldest and most diverse genetic material in the world can be found on the continent. This makes it a true treasure for medical research. Even when it comes to fighting diseases.

Human geneticist Shahida Moosa is convinced that all of Africa needs more genomic research. Only then can the world benefit from it. She co-leads the African-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 three to six percent of all studies have focused on Africans. “We are one and a half billion people with the greatest genetic diversity in the world.”

Until now, international studies have focused on the genetic makeup of people in Europe and the United States. To this day the best-equipped research centers are located there. With Africa there is a huge blank space in the center of the world map, says the 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 the functioning of the human body and a blueprint for pathogens. In this way, research can help contain the spread of epidemics and detect and treat diseases. This research is booming around the world, including Africa.

The need for independence from foreign countries has become painfully clear for Africa during the coronavirus pandemic. Given the huge international demand, the vaccines became available late. Much later than for 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-reliance has been the mantra of the Pan African Health Authority. It has begun coordinating the distribution of existing vaccines and medications.

In addition, local production and the expansion of research facilities are supported. The focus is on infectious diseases. Other areas of genomic research may also benefit from this tailwind. Research on cancer, Parkinson’s, diabetes and also rare diseases.

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

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

Immediately afterwards, European countries and the United States imposed blanket travel bans on several African countries, with serious economic consequences. This angered African governments and researchers. At the same time he stimulated her.

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

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

Virologist Abdualmoniem Omer Abdalla from Sudan is invited to CERI as part of a research grant: “I would like to at least implement the minimum standards in Sudan. Before the corona pandemic, we needed between half a year and a whole year for the analysis Now “It can be done in a month.”

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

He saw no 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, technical knowledge is lacking. This same year he delivered in the capital, Khartoum, the first and so far only sequencing machine. That’s why Omer wants to come back soon and share his new knowledge.

The pan-African exchange is driven by the African Union (AU). The plan is to expand and establish several centers of excellence in genomics on the continent.

“In recent years, we have greatly expanded genomic capabilities in Africa,” says Sofonias Tessema, program director at the AU Health Authority. But there is still a long way to go to realize its full potential. The researcher explains that knowledge of genomics in particular must also be incorporated into decisions about health and medical development.

“We believe that in this way we can train a large number of young African scientists,” says Christian Happi, director of the African Center of Excellence in 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. In addition, we must also collaborate with companies “so that an independent industry is created on our continent that develops diagnostics, vaccines and medicines.”

Together with the director of the CERI Institute of South Africa, 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 is not the traditional model. So the Europeans teach us something, they build something and Africa remains passive.” We can learn a lot from Africa, he says, for example in the area of ​​rare diseases, the development of syndromes and variants. “Our knowledge can be shared. with European clinics or… Research institutions help.”

Shahida Moosa, for example, heads a research group on rare diseases. “Individually, they’re weird,” she says. But in total there are six percent in each country who suffer from a rare disease. There would be 90 million Africans. Almost none of them have a diagnosis, says Moosa. “Up to 400 million people worldwide suffer from a rare disease. This is much more than all those infected with HIV.”

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

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