Genomics research to tackle endemic diseases

African Academy of Sciences awards grants to better understand the diseases that affect Africa most

The African Academy of Sciences is awarding $11 million to four leading African researchers for cutting edge research to accelerate the use of genomics to better understand how the environment and human genes influence the susceptibility of Africans to certain diseases, and their response to treatment. The grants are being awarded to researchers from Ethiopia, The Gambia, Uganda and South Africa to lead four-year programmes to promote south-south collaboration through the Human Hereditary and Health in Africa (H3Africa). The awards represent the first H3Africa disbursement through the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA), a collaboration of the African Academy of Sciences and the NEPAD Agency, since AESA assumed management of the Wellcome-funded component of the second phase of H3Africa. Phase 1 of H3Africa was implemented and managed by Wellcome and the US’ National Institutes of Health and AESA will continue the established partnership with the NIH and Wellcome to deliver Phase II.

The grants will support research to:

Identify genes causing or associated with hearing impairment (University of Cape Town, South Africa)

Study how genetic differences in humans and malaria parasites affect the progress of disease in individuals and communities in different environments (MRC, Gambia);

Understand how genetic diversity in both pathogens and human populations determines who gets tuberculosis with the aim of developing new treatments and vaccines (AHRI, Ethiopia)

Identify populations that are carriers of sleeping sickness and bilharzia — two neglected tropical diseases— for effective intervention through national control programmes (University of Makerere, Uganda).

Genomics is the scientific study of an individual’s genes including their interaction with each other and with the environment. Genomics has helped provide insight into the understanding of diseases, such as cancer and diabetes, which are influenced by genetic and environmental factors, thereby offering insights for developing new diagnostic methods, therapies and treatments.

Genomic research also offers the potential to better understand diseases endemic to Africa that remain understudied because human genetics research has been concentrated on European populations, underrepresenting individuals of African ancestry.

“With genomics, we can learn more about ourselves—why some diseases are more pervasive and have a more devastating impact in Africa than elsewhere in the world and how African populations respond to treatment — so we can produce products that are relevant to us, including drugs. This will go a long way in aiding efforts to reduce the continent’s disease burden and building a foundation for advances in genomics medicine and precision medicine for public health in Africa,” said AESA Director Prof Tom Kariuki.

The H3Africa projects include a component to build infrastructure and train a critical mass of highly skilled genomics researchers in Africa.

“As the world is moving towards precision medicine, having a critical mass of skilled labour is important for laying a firm foundation for its success in Africa. Promoting and sustaining this momentum is crucial if the continent is to competitively offer the right health interventions at the right time and to the right people in the near future,” said Dr Jenniffer Mabuka, H3Africa Programme Manager for the AAS.

Dr Audrey Duncason, Senior Portfolio Developer at Wellcome, said: Through this support, researchers in H3Africa will continue to take advantage of new genomic research technologies to explore the genetic factors contributing to infectious and chronic diseases that are a burden in Africa. They may then be able to apply this knowledge to develop new ways to treat disease that are tailored to African populations and to understand their specific response to existing drugs. It also ensures that African scientists are fully engaged and equipped to drive genomic research on the Continent.”

Dr Jennifer Troyer, Programme Director for the National Human Genome Research Institute Extramural Research Programme at the NIH said: “Disease knows no borders. Infectious diseases and chronic health conditions have underlying genetic and environmental risk factors that vary in different populations and different settings. Understanding the diversity of factors that contribute to human health throughout the world will enable us to work together to better control outbreaks, better manage non-communicable diseases, and find more effective preventions and treatments. Some of these may be site- or country-specific, and others will be universal. Either way, the knowledge H3Africa projects generate will contribute to overall global health.”

Notes to Editors and quotes from grantees

The awardees are:

Dr Alfred Amambua-Ngwa for the Pan African Malaria Genetic Epidemiology Network (PAMGEN). Institution: Medical Research Council, The Gambia. Project summary: To study how genetic changes in humans and malaria parasites impact on the disease in individuals and communities. Award: $3.1 M

Dr Alfred Amambua-Ngwa said: “Advancing the understanding of how humans and malaria parasites’ genetics impact on malaria holds promise for maintaining the efficacy of antimalarial drugs, discovering new treatments, and developing effective vaccines.”


Dr Abraham Aseffa for the Tuberculosis Genetics Network in Africa (TBGENAfrica). Institution: Armauer Hansen Research Institute (AHRI), Ethiopia. Project summary: An integrated approach to unravelling susceptibility to tuberculosis in Africa. Award: $2.8 M

Dr Aseffa said: “Genomics research has the power to transform our understanding of why some individuals infected with tuberculosis become sick while others do not. In turn, this could help scientists develop better vaccines and drugs against TB.”

Dr Enock Matovu for The Genetic Determinants of Two neglected tropical diseases (TrypanoGEN+). Institution: University of Makerere, Uganda. Project summary: To unravel the genetic basis of asymptomatic carriers of sleeping sickness and high bilharzia worm burdens for a rationalised and cost-effective intervention through national control programmes. Award:$ 2.7

M Dr Enock Matovu said: “It is encouraging to see programmes like H3Africa that are funding African scientists who best understand local problems to provide solutions especially for diseases that don’t receive global attention but are posing a challenge to communities, such as bilharzia and sleeping sickness. Our research is focused on training skilled researchers to gain further understanding of these diseases for a rationalised approach to large scale control towards their elimination as public health problems.”

Prof Ambroise Wonkam for the Hearing Impairment Genetics Studies in Africa (HI-GENES Africa). Institution: University of Cape Town, South Africa. Project summary: To identify genes that cause non-syndromic hearing loss (a loss of hearing that is not associated with other signs and symptoms). Award: $2.067

M Prof Wonkam said: “Studying the genetics of hearing impairment requires large numbers of people from diverse communities for more effective results. We will research the largest sample of sub-Saharan Africans from Cameroon, Mali, Ghana, and South Africa to better understand the genetic aetiology of non-syndromic hearing impairment in African populations.”

Resources for Genomics

Source: African Academy of Sciences

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