How decoding African DNA could help Fight Epidemics.
Black Africans are at a disadvantage when it comes to drug treatments because they represent only 2% of the genetic samples used for pharmaceutical research, but a new Nigeria-based genomics company wants to change that.
The lack of genetic studies on diverse populations has implications for risk prediction of diseases across the world, according to a scientific paper published by US-based academics in March.
According to Abasi Ene-Obong, the founder and CEO of biotech start-up 54gene, black Africans and people of black ancestry are more genetically diverse than all of the other populations in the world combined, making their genetic information “a huge resource to be tapped”.
He has set up a genetic research laboratory in Nigeria’s largest city of Lagos, from where his team plans to analyze some 40,000 DNA data samples by the end of 2019, with a view to reaching 100,000 over the next 12 months.
Dr. Ene-Obong says that knowledge of the role genetics plays in diseases will help in developing relevant treatment. "Drugs are not even made with Africans in mind, they are not trialed clinically with an African population, so what you have is drugs with lower efficacy for African populations and with poorer safety profiles," he told the BBC.
New drugs also take time to reach Africa - sometimes between 15 and 20 years, says Dr. Ene-Obong.
Pharmaceutical giants often manufacture drugs for the profitable Western market, and the generic variants are only available in Africa after these companies lose their patents.
Dr. Ene-Obong says the way to fix this lag is to increase access to genomic data from African populations to promote inclusive scientific research.
"This will lead to optimized treatment and diagnostic outcomes that will not only treat Africans but also everyone else," he says.
Born in Nigeria, Dr. Abasi has extensive experience operating in the US, UK and Nigerian healthcare industries. Prior to 54gene, Abasi worked with leading healthcare organizations, including Fortune 100 pharmaceutical companies, academic and research institutions, and governments as a management consultant with PwC and IQVIA (formerly QuintilesIMS).
Why is African DNA important?
It’s where modern humans evolved 300,000 years ago, where humans have been the longest. And as a consequence, Africa has the highest genetic diversity of anywhere else on the planet. Despite Africa’s prominence in the human story, so far only 30 ancient genomes between 300 and 15,000 years old have been published from the continent.