African scientists map the genomic resources of the continent
By Wallace Mawire
Up to 300 African scientists have converged in Accra, Ghana, this week to map out progress of a multi-million, multi-country and multi-year genomic research programme to increase understanding of how human genes and the environment are contributing to Africa’s increased susceptibility to diseases.
The scientists, who are members of the Human Heredity and Health in Africa (H3Africa) consortium, a major genomics research programme established in 2010 by the African Society of Human Genetics (AfSHG), Wellcome Trust and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), have made significant progress in using genetic, clinical and epidemiological tools to identify individuals and populations who are at risk for developing specific diseases. The hope is to contribute to efforts to reduce Africa’s high disease burden, which stands at 25 % of the global figures [World Bank]. The scientists will be presenting their findings at the 14th H3Africa Consortium meeting taking place in Accra from 23-27 September 2019 and will be opened by a representative from Ghana’s Ministry of Science and Technology.
Over the last 7 years, H3Africa investigators have been examining the relationship between genetic variation, environment, and health in African populations. Genome scale data has been generated for over 50,000 research participants from across Africa. These data will provide a clearer and more detailed understanding of the genetic diversity of Africans and new insight into the history of human migration in Africa. It also has the potential to reveal some of the small differences in our genes that are influential in determining what makes Africa more susceptible or resistant to certain diseases and that can impact disease outcomes and response to treatment.
Genomic research also offers the potential to better understand diseases endemic to Africa that remain understudied because human genetics research has been concentrated on European populations, under representing individuals of African ancestry.
Some of the findings from H3Africa include:
- Bacteria in the noses of children differ between those who do and do not develop pneumonia, even before pneumonia develops, and that air pollution influences these bacterial communities.
- Hypertension is highly prevalent in eastern and southern Africa and even though many take medication, their hypertension is not always properly controlled.
These and other findings will enable early and more accurate diagnosis, the development of new drugs and potentially, personalised medicine, a modern approach that recognises that individuals respond to treatment differently and tailors care to a specific individual or population to ensure they get the right treatment and the right dose at the right time.
“Some diseases are more prevalent and devastating on the African continent than in the rest of the world. Mapping the genetic diversity of Africans by H3Africa researchers will help us to understand why this is. Further Africans are also protected against other diseases seen in other continents and it is important to understand this. Health care needs to be targeted not a one size fits all.” said Dr Michelle Skelton, Principal Investigator, H3Africa Administrative Coordinating Centre.
The programme has also been very successful in building infrastructure and training a critical mass of highly skilled genomics researchers of close to 800 PhD, master’s and bachelor of science students in the field.
“With genomics, we can learn more about ourselves—why some diseases are more pervasive and have a more devastating impact in Africa than elsewhere in the world and how African populations respond to treatment — so we can produce products that are relevant to us, including drugs. This will go a long way in aiding efforts to reduce the continent’s disease burden and building a foundation for advances in genomics medicine and precision medicine for public health in Africa,” said AAS H3Africa Programme Manager, Dr Jennifer Mabuka. Currently, there is an ongoing global effort to apply genomic science and associated technologies to further the understanding of health and disease in different populations. However, most African countries are being left behind in this genomic revolution. H3Africa is part of efforts to urgently close the genomics gap and widening of global and ethnic inequalities in health and economic well-being.
Further details on the 14th H3Africa Consortium Meeting
The major goals of the 14th Meeting are to:
- Identify more opportunities for cross collaborations and opportunities between diverse H3Africa projects.
- Develop advanced community engagement guidelines and recommendations
- Develop a universal case report form
- Create content toward producing a promotional Video
- Improve skills including: Scientific Writing, Science Communication and Media Engagement
- Finalise H3Africa Policy and Guideline Documents