South Africa is carrying out an "impressive" amount of genomics research, but to progress it must address a shortfall in funding and encourage local collaboration.
These are the conclusions of an analysis of the use of genetics in South Africa, published in Nature Reviews Genetics (NRG) this month (October) along with overviews of the burgeoning genomics sectors in India, Mexico and Thailand.
South Africa, home to vast genetic diversity, is concentrating on profiling indigenous populations and applying genomics to benefit local health needs — HIV and tuberculosis for example — with research into disease susceptibility and drug metabolism.
Other African countries are also making advances in the field, with a national DNA bank in The Gambia and human gene banking by drug discovery groups like the African Institute of Biomedical Science and Technology (AIBMST) in Harare, Zimbabwe.
Collen Masimirembwa, the AIBMST director, says African researchers overcame significant logistical hurdles to create the bank, with blood samples collected from about 100 adult volunteers from Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe.
But much of the research into African human genetic variation is still done by international scientists, although in collaboration with African institutions, says Raj Ramesar from the University of Cape Town in South Africa.
"We are currently developing an open-source inventory of exactly what is being done and by whom," says Ramesar.
The authors of the case study say that additional government research funding is needed in South Africa to ensure that research does not have to rely on international collaborations. The divide between basic research and commercialisation must also be bridged.
Genetics offers cash-strapped public health programmes the opportunity for greater effectiveness such as identifying drugs for specific individuals, says Abdallah Daar, a principle investigator for the study and director of ethics and policy at the McLaughlin Centre for Molecular Medicine in Toronto, Canada.
Béatrice Séguin, the team leader of the NRG studies and a research associate at Canada's McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health says that the results of the study are being distributed across Sub-Saharan Africa and that the researchers are engaging with policymakers.
"Expansion into biotechnology has multiple spin-offs. It would help prevent brain drain, more physical infrastructure would be constructed and more innovative research would be done," Séguin adds.
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Nature Reviews Genetics doi 10.1038/nrg2441 (2008)