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African Researchers to Use Latest Genetic Tools for Health and History

  • Joe DeCapua

Research into the health of Africans takes a big step forward with the launch of the Human Heredity and Health in Africa Project.

The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the London-based Wellcome Trust are funding the project, with support from the African Society for Human Genetics.

New to Africa

African researchers will use the latest genetic and clinical technology to study common health problems, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and other diseases. While much research is being done on HIV/AIDS and TB, the developing world still suffers from the same chronic illnesses as the West. The population-based genome studies will look for risk factors among Africans.

Nigerian-born Dr. Charles Rotimi is president of the African Society for Human Genetics and director of the Center for Research on Genomics and Global Health at the NIH. He is in London for the launch of the project.

“The global scientific community is trying to use our new technology in genomics to understand human health and also human history. These efforts are for the most part really not been applied in any kind of systematic manner on the continent of Africa,” he says.

Dr. Rotimi says there’s been “inequity” in the use of these scientific tools.

Africa is unique

“Africa,” he says, “has one if not the most pressing need to understand health given that African populations suffer disproportionally from these infectious and non-infectious diseases.”

Rotimi says it’s important to understand how local conditions “impact on the genetics of individuals to put them at high risk for these various diseases.”

Genetic research in Africa can have wide-ranging implications.

“We now know that Africa is the home of all humans before migrating to the different parts of the world. So humans have lived the longest on the African continent. As a result of that, African people carry more genetic diversity and that has very serious implications for using genetics to understand diseases,” he says.

Because humans share a common history in Africa, Rotimi says, “We share most of our genetic background.” And that can help medical research. For example, he says, research in West Africa on diabetes helped scientists doing similar work in the Nordic countries.

“We are going to solve problems of African people. And one of the things that we’re really interested in is how genes interact with the environment. And you cannot do that outside of Africa because you want to consider local environment. Things like diet and cultural practices. How do those things interact with genes that are new and also old genes to put people at risk?”

Dr. Rotimi says the project will be a success if the health of Africans and other populations improves. The genetic research could lead to better treatments and medicines, as well as ways to help prevent illness.

NIH will provide (US) $5million a year for 5 years, while the Wellcome Trust will contribute at least $12 million over the next 5 years.