Africa's epic DNA story

2018-02-18 06:01
DNA on plate – iStock

DNA on plate – iStock

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While Africa holds the most diverse gene pool in the world, scientists have not figured out the order of the DNA sequence of African populations.

The SA Medical Research Council (SAMRC), in partnership with Chinese scientists, is at the helm of ground-breaking genome research on the continent’s populations.

Medical scientists in Cape Town are calling it “the dawn of a new medical revolution”, which is set to change the face of African medical innovation.

Whole genome sequencing may not be something the man on the street knows about, but this field of research has played a major part in helping researchers understand why populations are predisposed to certain diseases and how those diseases behave in their bodies.

This knowledge equips medical practitioners with a better understanding of how best to treat certain illnesses, and to learn what treatments yield effective results.

Glenda Gray, a professor and the president of the SAMRC, told City Press: “We know that certain drugs for chronic diseases are not as efficacious in certain populations compared with others. So, understanding the human genome on why certain populations have predispositions to diseases and why they respond to medications differently will enable us to deal with diseases such as hypertension and diabetes in South Africans in a more concise way.”

On Friday, South Africa signed an agreement with the Beijing Genomics Institute on Table Mountain in Cape Town to cement ties in the establishment of the first African genomics centre.

The state-of-the-art centre, worth more than R90 million, is already under construction at SAMRC in Cape Town. Its main function will be to provide whole genome sequencing by Africans for Africa.

Rizwana Mia, the head of precision medicine at the centre, said the significance of the development was that South Africa would be able to treat patients more effectively.

“The genetic variance is high in African populations, and medicines that are formulated sometimes do not work because they are mainly made for Western populations. Finding what works for Africans will change outcomes.

“There was a woman in the US who had gallbladder cancer. When they treated her with gallbladder medication, it wasn’t working. [Doctors] sequenced the tumour and found that the mutation causing the cancer was something that would normally cause leukaemia in children. Then they treated her with the proper medication and she recovered,” Mia said.

Gray added that the research would allow for treatment to be individualised at population level through precision medicine.

“Drugs are metabolised differently by different populations … particularly cardiovascular drugs. We don’t fully understand why, which is why studying the whole genome will help us create and discover better

“The first thing to do is to track the genome of African populations and understand where people come from; to understand why Zulu and Xhosa people are distinct to Sotho people, for example. This enables us to understand our heritage and disease susceptibility. And it’s not only to track diseases, but also to understand our ancestry,” Gray said.

The research will shed light on medical issues relevant to African populations, such as why Cape coloureds are more susceptible to tuberculosis than other populations.

Dr Li Ning, chief development officer at Beijing Genomics Institute, said China and South Africa each had diseases unique to them.

However, the two countries share some common ailments such as cancer and metabolic diseases, which they needed to join hands to fight against.

“We exchanged our experience and technology with South African scientists,
based on trust and full respect for one another. We have already learnt much from each other,” he said.


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