LONDON (Reuters) - A $37 million international collaboration by major research bodies in the United States, Britain and Africa wants to take the fruits of the genetic revolution to a continent it has largely bypassed until now.
The project, named Human Heredity and Health in Africa or “H3Africa”, will use genetic techniques developed in the West to explore the roots of human life among populations that carry the world’s oldest and most diverse sets of genes.
Founders of the plan say that 10 years after the first full human genome was mapped, what scientists can learn about genetic variation and disease in Africa will have global relevance.
“Africa is the cradle of humanity, so things that we learn in Africa will undoubtedly have broad implications for peoples in all other parts of the planet,” said Francis Collins, director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH).
But the idea is also to free Africa from what some describe as “scientific colonialism”, and to try to halt a brain drain of researchers who have tended to leave the continent to study the ups and downs of its health from afar.
Bongani Mayosi, head of the department of medicine at the University of Cape Town, said the project represents “a very, very important shift in the way science is done in Africa.”
“Up until now, we have been operating almost in a colonial mode of doing science, where people from outside Africa have been coming to collect samples, and then processing them and publishing their papers outside Africa,” Mayosi said at a briefing in London to explain the project.
“What is different about this initiative is that it seeks to do science in Africa, by Africans and for Africans.”
With $25 million from the NIH and $12 million from the London-based global charity the Wellcome Trust, H3Africa plans to build expertise in countries where it is much needed but sorely lacking, so that African scientists can in future conduct large, robust scientific studies on their own people.
Researchers will help set up ‘biobanks’ to collect DNA and medical information from hundreds of thousands of African people so that scientists can study links between genes and disease.
They also hope to set up or build on local research centres and use genome-wide scanning and sequencing technologies to find genetic change that may contribute to specific illnesses.
Some studies will focus on the role genes play in Africa’s biggest killer diseases — malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS — while others will look at conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke, all of which are becoming widespread in African populations.
Despite the huge burden of infectious disease that it carries, Africa lags the rest of the world in health research: a report from Thomson Reuters in April found its contribution to the global body of scientific research is very small and does little to benefit its own populations.
It said Africa suffers from a “haemorrhage of talent”, with many of its best brains leaving to study abroad.
Speaking in a week when scientists are marking the 10th anniversary of the publication of the first draft of the human genome, Charles Rotimi, president of the African Society of Human Genetics, said his continent had been largely ignored by the genetic revolution.
In the U.S., Europe and Asia, ever faster gene sequencing tools have enabled scientists to begin to untangle the genetic roots of many major diseases and explore their links and interactions with environment and lifestyle factors like diet.
Genome-wide association studies, which scan gene maps, are an important tool in this work. But of the hundreds of such studies conducted in the past decade, only one, on malaria, was based on African populations — a state of affairs that Rotimi described as “really tragic”.
“It is clear that so far we have not equally applied the tools of genomics,” he said.
“Africa is the trunk and root of human evolutionary history, so what we get from there is going to be equally important to other parts of the world.”