How Africa taps its genetic treasure

How Africa taps its genetic treasure

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

Researchers in Africa want to better study the African genome. To this end, capabilities on the continent are being expanded. (image alliance/Westend61/Andrew Brookes)

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

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

Human geneticist Shahida Moosa is convinced that all of Africa needs more genomic research. This is the only way the world can benefit from this. She co-leads 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 on the continent,” says Moosa. So far, only three to six percent of all studies have dealt with 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 US. To this day, the best-equipped research centers are located there. With Africa there is a huge blank space in the middle of the world map, says the human geneticist.

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

Genomic research, known as genomics, can help treat 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 detect and treat diseases. This research is growing around the world, including in Africa.

The need to become independent from foreign countries has become painfully clear for Africa during the corona pandemic. Given the enormous international demand, vaccines were made 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-sufficiency has been the mantra of the Pan-African Health Authority. It began coordinating the distribution of existing vaccines and medicines.

In addition, local production and the expansion of research facilities are supported. The focus is on infectious diseases. Other areas of genomic research could 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 “South African Center 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 later disclosed it for transparency reasons.

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

Cheryl Baxter researches CERI and says:At the start of the pandemic, many African countries still had to send their samples to laboratories abroad. Today we can sequence more and more here on site.” This means that 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 a guest at 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 half a year to a full year for analysis. Now it can be done within a month.”

The South African Center for Epidemic Response and Innovation (CERI) shares its knowledge. In the last three years, it has welcomed 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,” he admits.

In Sudan, Omer’s homeland, there is a lack of knowledge. Later 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.

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 manager at the AU Health Authority. But there is still a long way to go to utilize its full potential. The researcher explains that genomic discoveries, in particular, must also be incorporated into decisions about health and medical development.

“We believe we can train a large number of young African scientists 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 objective is to use genomics as a tool. Furthermore, we must also work together with companies “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 Afro-European research project “Genomics for Health in Africa”, with partners at universities in Germany and Switzerland.

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

Shahida Moosa, for example, leads a research group on rare diseases. “Individually, they are rare,” she says. But overall, there are six percent in every country who suffer from a rare disease. That would be 90 million Africans. Almost none of them have a diagnosis, says Moosa. “Up to 400 million people around the world suffer from a rare disease. That is much more than all the people infected with HIV.”

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

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