[LONDON] Ten years after the first draft of the human genome was completed Africa hopes to jump on board the genomics revolution with a partnership announced yesterday (22 June).
The US$37 million Human, Heredity and Health in Africa project (H3Africa), sponsored by the US-based National Institutes of Health and UK medical charity The Wellcome Trust, will enable African researchers to conduct genetic population-based studies into non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and heart disease over the next five years.
"There has been concern that Africa is being left behind in the genomics revolution," Bongani Mayosi, head of the department of medicine at Groote Schuur Hospital and University of Cape Town in South Africa told SciDev.Net after the UK launch of the project.
"In genetic research, Africa is of fundamental importance. It is genetically old and contains information that is of interest to all human populations."
He said research on conditions such as sickle-cell anaemia — a genetic condition common on the continent — could translate into new diagnostic tests within the next 5–10 years.
The tenth anniversary of the completion of the first draft of the human genome, which cost US$3 billion, was marked earlier this month by critics saying that, while science had benefited, there had been none of the major health breakthroughs that were promised by the endeavour.
Mayosi acknowledged that the project is unlikely to yield quick returns but said the long-term pay-off could be great.
"There's been a huge investment ... over the past 20 years and although we've learnt a lot about biology, mechanisms of disease, it has not yet translated to benefits in the clinic and in the population level on the scale that was expected.
"So I think everybody expects that this is a long-term project and even this investment is unlikely to yield quick returns. But I think the benefits come about through training of people, scientists, building of infrastructure.
"There is a commitment on the part of the funders for the research to be done in Africa by Africans for Africans.
African scientists will be trained to a high-standard working on samples that have been acquired on their continent, he said. There will be a clear plan about how to integrate those scientists who have trained abroad into institutions back home afterwards.
Scientists will meet in the United Kingdom in August to develop their approach before presenting the finalised version later this year.