Opinion by Dr. Roger I. Glass
Director, Fogarty International Center
Humans evolved in Africa and, today, populations in Africa carry the world's richest genetic diversity. However, the field of genomics has barely touched the continent, concentrating instead on developed countries with their ready supply of scientists, sophisticated equipment and study populations.
It's heartening to see that this is now changing, thanks in large part to the efforts of the NIH and Wellcome Trust to establish H3Africa - the Human Heredity and Health in Africa Consortium. This bold initiative is intended to build genomics-related research expertise and infrastructure across Africa. Deepening the understanding of genomic variations in its many populations promises to improve health by enabling more accurate disease identification and diagnosis and - as the world moves toward personalized medicine - tailored treatments based on an individual's genomic profile.
H3Africa's funds, targeted to be $38 million over the first five years, have begun flowing through nine initial awards to African genomics scientists. These grantees will collaborate with researchers across the continent and around the globe to study illnesses of particular interest in Africa, such as sleeping sickness and rheumatic heart disease. Many studies will inform disease research in other parts of the world as well. For instance, a grant to South African researchers focuses on genomic and environmental factors that raise the risk of cardiovascular disease, a big killer everywhere.
H3Africa is also supporting an effort to establish an African biorepository to store and distribute biological samples from populations on the continent. To facilitate the sharing of the enormous genomic data sets that will result, H3Africa is supporting a bioinformatics network, initially with nodes of computational expertise in at least 15 countries. The vision for H3Africa has been shaped by NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins - whose work in Africa led to the discovery of the first gene for diabetes - together with National Human Genome Research Institute Director Dr. Eric Green and NHGRI senior investigator Dr. Charles Rotimi, who also leads the trans-NIH Center for Research on Genomics and Global Health.
Fogarty, along with several other NIH Institutes and Centers, is pleased to have a role in this remarkable goal of expanding African genomics capacity. Indeed, many of our programs support training directly relevant to genomics research, bioethics and population studies and data analysis. Our informatics training program has nurtured critical expertise needed to chip out discoveries from mountains of genetic sequencing data.
We're also identifying ways to form linkages between H3Africa and the Medical Education Partnership Initiative that Fogarty co-manages. In both cases, funding goes directly to African institutions, empowering them to develop medical and research education as they see fit. We anticipate synergies will develop between the two groups, further propelling cutting-edge science in Africa. These programs that establish meaningful collaborations and training opportunities on the continent can perhaps decrease, or even reverse, the brain drain of scientists and accelerate the pace of discovery and capacity building at home.
As H3Africa takes root, I anticipate additional funders will add their support and we'll see scientific research in Africa blossom in unprecedented ways. As the momentum builds, so will the likelihood that the health of populations on the continent will improve steadily and bring relief to those who have suffered the world's heaviest disease burden for far too long. And for science in general, unlocking the secrets of African genomes will reveal much about the genetic roots from which we all came.