[OUDTSHOORN] A new era of medicines tailored to suit the genetic profiles of specific populations could leave Africa behind, some of the continent's most respected geneticists are warning.
Developments in genetics will lead drug companies to design medicines that work best in populations with particular genetic profiles, says Charles Rotimi, a Nigerian and director of the US-based Center for Research on Genomics and Global Health.
But if Africa does not keep up with these developments its people will not receive drugs tailored for them, he says.
"We don't want a situation where, again, resources are in the hands of the privileged few. However, I do believe the world appreciates this must not be allowed to happen," Rotimi says.
Rotimi was speaking following the publication of a 10-year-long research study, to which he contributed, on the genetic diversity of African populations. The study, published in Science, compared genetic markers (sections of DNA that reveal the bearer's genetic heritage) between 121 African populations, four African-American populations and 60 non-African populations.
The result was the first large-scale genetic map of Africa, which revealed that it is the most genetically diverse continent — with 14 ancestral groups.
The researchers hope the work will kick-start research into genomics and biomedical research in Africa, says Sarah Tishkoff, of the US-based University of Pennsylvania. The data provide a base from which to discover the links between genes and susceptibility to disease in Africa as well as the genetic reasons for variability in responses to drugs.
The study demonstrates why some vaccine trials fail in parts of Africa but work well elsewhere, says Nigerian microbiologist Agnes Awomoyi, of the US-based Ohio State University.
"The meningitis vaccine, for example, was made against a serotype that was not circulating in the meningitis belt of Africa. Hence, that vaccine was ineffective for Africans," she told SciDev.Net.
Drug trials should include all major African populations, she added.
Africa needs to be involved in the initial stages of drug research and development, says Maritha Kotze, a geneticist at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, and an author of the study.
"If not we risk being left out," she says. "There is so much good that comes of drugs properly developed for a specific population."
And Muntaser Ibrahim, from Sudan's University of Khartoum, told SciDev.Net that it is crucial for African scientists to be involved in the study of the genetics of African populations as the work provides a "foundation and reference" for local studies on genetic variation and the genetic history and geography of Africa's various regions.